Admittedly, Fort McMurray—Fort Mac, as it’s known in these parts—has a bad rap. It’s the center of the tar sands industry, a boomtown in the wild-west sense of the word where people come from all over to make it big.
As the guy sitting behind me on the Greyhound said to his buddy on the phone, “You got three thousand bucks for what, a couple hours of work? Shoot. That’s a thousand bucks an hour.”
Yep—that kind of money.
Yet the road to Fort McMurray is lined with white crosses, marking the passage of the drivers who were in too much of a hurry to get there—or to get away.
The problems of a migrant population that doesn’t provide a tax base to support things like health care or schools, the drug addiction and prostitution, have been widely documented. The municipality is playing perpetual catch-up, widening roads and zoning new subdivisions such that it’s permanently under construction.
But I would like to say, for the record, that we also encountered some of the friendliest people I’ve ever met, people who could put small-town America’s hospitality to shame. We went to an open mic night with so much fuzzy community love that it could have been Portland, OR. I even made friends with the guy who sweeps the parking lot of the Oil Can Tavern. Fort McMurryites are proud of their city and resent its image as a vortex of sin.
Plus, it’s beautiful. If you were to glance up from your beer at the Oil Can, you could see green hills just past the concrete strip mall of downtown. At the confluence of the Athabasca and Clearwater Rivers, it’s surrounded by boreal forest for miles and miles. The logging and the tar sands mining are often carefully hidden from view; if you didn’t already know about them, you might not know they were there.
Dave, the pilot of the little Cessna for our aerial tour of the tar sands, was a blond kid I wasn’t sure was old enough to drive, let alone fly a plane that I suspected was made of balsa wood. When I asked him how often he flew, he said cheerfully, “Oh, sometimes I do this route 9 or 10 times a day.”
“You don’t get sick, do you? I think we have a plastic bag here somewhere…”
The takeoff was smooth, however, and we soared above the sprawl of Fort Mac. We passed over Suncor’s Macdonald Island, a shiny civic showpiece billed as “Canada’s largest community recreational, cultural, and leisure facility.” Many, if not most, of the city’s public works projects and social service nonprofits, it turns out, are funded by oil.
We followed Highway 63 north and then, there they it was: the edge of the gaping wound that is the tar sands. I was grateful to be sitting in the back seat— my companion made conversation with the pilot, who kept up a steady stream of commentary, and I was left to stare numbly down at the bleak, unfolding world beneath us. Already, we could smell the tar.
It appeared to me as an abstract painting, a Basquiat in gray and brown: the tailings “ponds”—a nicely pastoral term—vast, toxic pools reflecting the clouds, their edges cracked and black; the inland deserts of pale sand, byproducts of bitumen processing; the black mining pits; angry scratches and smudges, markings of a defiant child.
We flew over enormous Heavy Haulers, the biggest vehicles on earth, yellow mammoths on wheels. “They look like Tonka trucks, don’t they?” said Dave. He pointed out Suncor and Syncrude’s operations, the biggest out of the hundred-some odd mining projects.
We flew over the upgraders—where thick bitumen is processed into crude—glittering palaces of twisting pipes, storage tanks and smoke stacks. Tall flare stacks belched fire where a flag might have flown.
We flew over the neon-yellow sulfur megaliths—another byproduct of upgrading—like the base of an unfinished pyramid. Dave said that when it rains, the sulfur changes color and stains the ground with red runoff. “They should just finish the pyramids and turn it into a tourist attraction!” he joked.
Actually, I did feel a little sick.
Dave steered with one hand, veering right to give us a better view. While a lot of people were “anti-oil sands,” he said diplomatically, they didn’t realize how important the industry was. After all, “we supply a third of the world’s oil.” He’s a little off—it’s currently more like 4 percent—but this is exactly the future that the Canadian government would like to see.
We followed the silver curves of the Athabasca, which flowed north towards Fort Chipewyan, a First Nation community that has been hit hard by the industry pollution. It’s accessible by an ice road in winter, but only by plane in summer. For years, this community that’s always relied on hunting and fishing for food has been bringing up deformed fish in their nets. If they can’t eat the fish, the only alternative is to fly in food from the outside at astronomical prices.
Talk to anyone from there, and they’ll tell you about the unusually high rates of rare cancers. Talk to anyone in the industry, and they’ll cite industry-funded studies that say there’s no link between health problems and tar sands. Deformed fish happen in nature, they argue.
Dave doesn’t think the oil sands have anything to do with the cancer rates. “You should see how much beer and cigarettes and processed food we fly up there,” he said.
I wonder now what he’d have said if I’d mentioned that I talked with someone just days before who had seen the fish with her own eyes: she described to me the tumors, the green gills. She knows the families who have to decide between those fish and the $8 loaves of bread.
Almost every Fort McMurryite I met possessed a fierce perky attitude toward their home industry. The bus driver of our official Oil Sands Discovery Center tour greeted us by saying, “You guys are in for a treat! This is a nice trip.” At the Center itself, we were treated to explanations of the refining process by a cute cartoon oil drop and “Professor Nositall,” a tar sands-version of Bill Nye the Science Guy. After seeing that it is indeed possible to disneyfy something as unappealing as tar, I was ready to get back on the Greyhound.
But Fort Mac wasn’t quite ready to let me go: we got a ride to the bus station from an earnest young man whose enthusiasm for his hometown was as bubbly as bitumen in an extractor: he loved his multicultural church, loved the work opportunities for teenagers in the oil industry, loved his community. He makes more here working the same job anywhere else, because the oil economy has inflated salaries. Sure, he’d raise his kids here. When I said that we’d come to check out the oil sands, he jumped at his chance to pitch his two cents:
“Let me educate you,” he said. ”They’re actually really clean.”
“The hardcore activists are wrong,” he said. The mines are surrounded by forest, and it’ll be returned to forest when the work is done, too. No harm done. Although, he admitted, he wouldn’t want to work there himself. The smell gives people headaches.
Nevertheless, he insisted that the oil sands industry actually cleans the river. The water reaches the oil patch already polluted, but thanks to strict environmental regulations on the oil industry, it’s comes out cleaner than it would be otherwise. “We get blamed because we’re last in line.”
When I asked him about the cancer rates in Fort Chipewyan—something everybody around here seems to have an opinion about—he said that, yeah, it might be the water, but it was probably because of their unhealthy lifestyle. Plus, some people were just born with more immunity than others. Look at me, he said, I’m full of vigor and have lived here all my life. No cancer here.
Little Fort Mac does so much for the world, he continued. People just didn’t understand. “Fort Chip is lucky. Without us, they’d probably be dead.”
Back on the bus, I overheard another phone conversation, this time from a man who was on his way out. “I got laid off yesterday,” he said. “Going home. I got enough money to pay all my shit off, so that’s good. That’s all I really care about.”