Gliding past a monster


A sandbar in the Athabasca River in Alberta in 1985, when Al Kesselheim and Marypat Zitzer paddled 650 miles from its source to its mouth. Floating past the province's oil sands pits, the couple was stunned by scale of the development, which has continued nonstop in the quarter-century since.

February 10, 2011

Oversized loads bound for a Montana oil refinery work their way through Idaho, presaging an effort to turn a scenic byway into an industrial artery for Alberta's oil sands and rekindling one Montanan's 25-year-old memories of sub-Arctic destruction

Marypat-AlBy Alan S. Kesselheim 

For the Daily Climate

BOZEMAN, Mont. – In 1985 I paddled a canoe past the oil sands in northern Alberta. My wife and I had been on the Athabasca River for more than a month, paddling 650 miles from just downstream of the Columbia Icefields, and we would continue another 200 miles to Lake Athabasca. For that month we had been enfolded by a wilderness of river canyon, Class III whitewater, black bears.

The smell of petroleum hit us a week before reaching Fort McMurray. 

That country literally oozes tar and gas and oil from the ground. We stopped once at a spring that smelled of gas. When we held a match to the surface, it flickered blue flames like a plum pudding on fire. We heard of a trapper along the river who had tapped a natural gas seep near his house for heat, cooking fuel, even a heated greenhouse.

Our mouths fell open - the scale of it, the sounds, and the effluent pouring back into the river that we had come to know.

Our canoe emerged from that unsettled land, past the confluence with the Clearwater River, and into the stunning industry of the oil sands. We coasted past high banks of bermed-up sand. Yellow machines the size of houses roared down the roads, tore into the ground, stripped up the layers of earth to get at the seams of bitumen, or tar. Our mouths fell open - the scale of it, the sounds, and the effluent pouring back into the river that we had come to know. Even without understanding the challenges of refining that sludge, the transportation required and the environmental damage being done, we knew that we were gliding past a monster.

A quarter century has passed since that summer. The oil sands strip-mining effort has continued unabated, and steadily expanded. It has gone on non-stop, day after day, year after year, decade on decade: Knocking down forest, peeling up peat, dredging bitumen-soaked sand, denuding habitat, dumping countless gallons of tainted river water. 

marypatThe Chipewyan settlement of Fort Chipewyan, downstream, worries about elevated instances of kidney failure, Graves disease, and the risk of cancer from river water tainted with arsenic, mercury, other metals and sediments laced with polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons - toxics commonly found in tailings pond water. Chipewyans are told not to eat fish caught in the river, but fish and game provide their traditional diet. 

Polluted river water sullies the Athabasca delta, one of the world's most important wetlands and migratory bird habitats. Year by year the mining expands its footprint, a scar visible from outer space. Combined, the oil sand fields of northern Alberta cover an area of 54,000 square miles, an expanse larger than England.

Northern Alberta is far enough off the radar that it might as well be another planet. Very few people live there. It's easy to forget about that carnage, even if, like me, you've been there. 

Two years ago, watching the movie Avatar it all came back. 

This is an old, tired story, I thought, watching the industrial colonization of a foreign planet, the clear-cutting of ancient forest and the apocalyptic demise of the beings who lived there. But in that dark theater, I felt the canoe paddle in my hands again, felt the river beneath the hull, witnessed the assault taking place just over the Athabasca's bank. I know where this Hollywood plot is unfolding right now, I thought. 

megaload-nightmegaload-emmertmegaload-riverAnd right now I'm reminded again because trucks are hauling behemoth loads across Montana, where I live, delivering equipment on a scale even science fiction screenwriters didn't anticipate.

Mega-trucks are pulling loads nearly 600,000 pounds, three stories high and 220 feet long across Idaho and Montana. This equipment is manufactured in Asia, shipped to the west coast, transported on barges up the Columbia watershed to the port of Lewistown, Idaho, and then transferred onto trucks that wind their way through some of the West's most picturesque river canyons and mountain passes. 

These are the test runs. Imperial Oil, the Canadian arm of ExxonMobil, has plans to truck 200 similarly gargantuan loads along the same route to the oil sands of the North. 

The trucks will hammer the pavement, stop traffic, add nothing to local economies. Scenic lands which support recreation and tourism are at risk. Citizen groups are waging campaigns. The Missoula County Commission and several districts of the U.S. Forest Service have lodged complaints. 

But we are a small state, and the pressures from industry are immense. 

The oil sands produce roughly 1.5 million barrels of oil per day. Alberta's biggest customer is the United States. Long-range, the plan is to build a pipeline from Alberta through Montana and Wyoming to Denver, and perhaps on to the Gulf Coast. 

The problems are tremendous. The oil doesn't flow, to start with. It has to be separated, steam-injected, and mixed with liquids before it will even move through the pipe. Once south, it has to be further refined before it can be rendered usable. 

To turn one barrel of oil sands bitumen into something you can pump into your gas tank requires removing two or three tons of earth, using three barrels of water, and burning 1,200 cubic feet of natural gas in a convoluted series of expensive processes to separate the oil, liquefy it, and refine it. All of this produces two to four times the amount of greenhouse gases as refining conventional petroleum. Talk about burning the candle at both ends. The mines pull 359 million cubic meters of water from the Athabasca River each year. While land reclamation is part of the discussion, not one reclamation certificate has been awarded to date, and the challenges of returning the landscape to anything remotely approximating its original state are appalling. 

 It took days to regain our mental rhythm, to let "river time" reassert itself. Life, and the river, bore us on. But now, it comes stabbing back.

Meanwhile, Alberta's regulators just approved the ninth open-pit mine north of Fort McMurray. An industry-led monitoring body concluded that the pit would produce "no significant adverse environmental effects on water quality."

As I write this, the first convoy of trucks is working its way up scenic and twisting Highway 12 in Idaho, along the Lochsa River. They will make their cumbersome way into Montana, passing north of my home. I feel the same way I did floating past the oil sands on the Athabasca River: In the presence of something monstrous. 

A quarter-century ago, the roar of machinery slowly receded in our canoe wake. We paddled on, the two of us, back into the embrace of deep northern wilderness. It took days to regain our mental rhythm, to let "river time" reassert itself. Life, and the river, bore us on.  

But now, as the monster trucks lumber across Idaho and Montana, it comes stabbing back, the confrontation with this Avatar-like juggernaut, and with my complicity. It is as tempting now as it was then to fall prey to the us-versus-them syndrome. But it doesn't take long for something more honest and profound to creep in. It isn't us and them. It's just us. Maybe, this time, it isn't okay to let it all slide past.  

© Alan S. Kesselheim. All rights reserved

Alan S. Kesselheim is a freelance writer and teacher who lives with his family in Bozeman, Mont. is a nonprofit news service covering climate change

Photo credits: Photos of the Athabasca sandbar, Al Kesselheim and Marypat Zitzer on a rock, and Marypat Zitzer resting against the canoe in 1985: © Alan Kesselheim.

ConocoPhillips "megaload" rounding a corner at night courtesy Idaho Transportation Department. Megaloads awaiting transport courtesy Emmert Int'l. Megaload convey at a highway pullout courtesy Fighting Goliath.

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