Profane Ecology

Climate & Culture

Oil in the Red Deer River


The dog greeted us by the river with his tail wagging, black shaggy fur matted and damp on his underbelly.  “Hey, that dog is covered in oil!” one of us joked, and at the time, we laughed.  We realized only later that it was true.  


It was the oil we had come for.  The four of us—two journalists, the Director of the provincial Sierra Club, and a grad student—wanted to see the latest in a long string of pipeline oil spills with our own eyes.  It had been a week since hundreds of thousands of litres had been leaked into the Red Deer River in southern Alberta, a week since the men in hazmat suits had begun the long process of cleaning it up. 

So what does progress look like?

When the pipeline ruptured, the river was already high from heavy rains and snowmelt, and it would get higher in the coming days.  It would carry the oil in its quickening flows towards Glennifer Lake, from which the city of Red Deer, population 92,000, draws its drinking water.

Those who lived near the ruptured pipe knew first what was wrong.  The air, which on a normal day smells like pines and plains and earth, had turned sour.  Those who lived downwind didn’t need to be told what it meant; they’d been through this before

The pipeline company, Plains Midstream, came in to assess the damage and brought in its emergency cleanup and containment crews.  They set up booms on the lake to contain the oil and brought in vacuum trucks to suck up what they could.  But much of the oil had already been absorbed into the soft earth and there was not much anyone could do.  Government officials said that it might be less destructive to leave much of the oil rather than try to clean it up—to allow it to degrade “naturally.” 

How long does that take?  About three to five years.

In the meantime, the river’s ecosystem—the spawning fish, the insects, the muskox and beavers, the grasses and water plants—are quietly destroyed.

A pipeline company VP expressed relief at their “luck”: luckily, the pipeline wasn’t flowing at the time.  Luckily, the swift current concentrated much of the oil in Glennifer reservoir.  Alberta Premier Alison Redford has agreed, adding that this was an “exception.”

Actually, it’s not: in Alberta alone, they happen almost every day.

We suited up, pulling on rubber boots and plastic gloves, and the friendly black dog circled us, coming up for a scratch behind the ears before plunging enthusiastically into the river.  “No! Get out of there!” we called, and tried coaxing the dog back onto the bank.  But he was enjoying himself, all the while lapping up the contaminated river water with his long tongue. 

You know there’s oil because of the smell: it’s like fresh asphalt in the summer, like gasoline from the pump.  Then the wind changes, and you wonder if you’ve imagined it. There it is, however, on the bank—a thick, black watermark as deep as your arm above the swiftly flowing river.

Oil sticks to everything.  It collects in eddies and sheltered areas away from the rushing current, and swirls metallic, glinting in the sun.  It collects in clumps of dry roots and grasses, like slick, matted hair.  Along the river, wild strawberries, clovers, and a cluster of wild roses—Alberta’s official flower— were all painted delicately in oil.  I crouched down to touch it with my bare fingers, rubbing the sticky black-brown syrup between two fingers.  I couldn’t wipe it off, and my stained hands smelled like tar for a long time after. 

The beauty of this spot was deceptive: the sky was brilliant blue, and the pines grew thick by the stream that sparkled and rushed.  A butterfly skimmed the grass near my feet.  But the black watermark stained the riverbank for miles and miles. 

We took pictures and looked for signs of wildlife, documenting the damage as best we could, not sure what we’d do with the evidence but knowing that it was important to bear witness.  Kelly, the grad student, had conscientiously brought along a trash bag and began pulling up fistfuls of oil-coated grass while the rest of us took pictures.  The smell was nauseating.  I joined her, and we worked for a few minutes until I stopped and sat back, staring off downstream at the unending ribbon of black tar.

The dog, fur still wet, followed us back to the car when we were finished, his tail still wagging, hoping for some treat or affection.  “Do we take him?” one of us asked, uncertain.  We deliberated, deciding in the end that we couldn’t, not knowing whether he belonged to some family nearby.  When I backed the car out, he was still there, watching us go. 

We should have taken him with us.

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