My Healing Walk Through the Tar Sands

The sun moves slowly in these latitudes. It gradually arks, from its rising on the northwest tree line, in a long southward loop, and back northward to its rest below the edge of the northwest summer sky.  At 11:00 last evening, we were burying the day’s compost in the pale evening light. By 3:30 this morning, the sky over the lake was already silver and rose. And so at 4:00 AM, I am up to greet the orange Alberta sunrise.

An old hymn courses through my mind: “When morning gilds the skies … may Jesus Christ be praised.” My heart is surprisingly willing this chilly Canadian Sunday. I think of my home church, soon to meet, a couple of worlds – and as many times zones – away to the southeast. I read by the lakeside J.B. Phillips’ version of the prayer of Jesus: “Father, may your name be honored – may your kingdom come!”  I think of that kingdom, with longing and hope, mixed with lament.

Willing heart, yes. But my joints are stiff, and my feet are blistered. No doubt, three nights sleeping on the ground is catching up with my pampered frame. But yesterday’s Healing Walk through Alberta’s toxic tar sands tailing lakes has done a job on my lungs and my tender feet, and I hobble around the campsite like a man twenty years older than my threescore.

Like this morning, it was a beautiful sunrise yesterday. About three hundred of us from Canada and beyond waited for a caravan of yellow school buses to take us to the Syncrude tar sands processing complex. Led by Cree, Chipewyan and Dene tribal elders, we came to pray, to recognize, and to mourn together – to bear witness to the devastation wrought in these boreal forests and indigenous homelands – by the destructive economy of which we all share some part.

For two days, we have listened to stories from native people whose families have cared for this land for millennia, and for whom the land has provided generously in return. When they call it their “mother,” they express a connection that is simply beyond the grasp of us “visitors.” There is a profound love in this community – for the water, the air, the land; and the fish, animals and people who depend upon it. People – not just the living, but those who preserved it for us long ago, and those who are yet unborn. You can feel the sense of belonging and responsibility to those who will follow “to the seventh generation.”

In due course, we are headed northward, following the flow of the Athabasca River, in our yellow bus caravan, toward the tar sands. No one calls them “oil sands” in this community. The industry PR campaign has won over much of Canada, but it’s had no effect on these people of the land.

And as we travel, the murky yellow sky ahead grows thicker. We wish to each other that we had brought bandanas for some defense against the foul air. But it’s not the air that brings us here.

It’s the water.

Take a look at a map of Canada. The pristine Athabasca flows north through Alberta, passing through the Fort McMurray tar sands region in the northeastern corner of the province.  And as it continues northward, it opens into a broad inland delta before spilling into the enormous Lake Athabasca, from which it feeds the mighty Mackenzie River. The Mackenzie, exceeded in North America only by the Mississippi. Everywhere you look on the map around here, you see water. You can’t travel overland up to Fort Chipewyan at this time of year, because there’s nothing frozen to drive on.

So you’d think, in this land blessed by God with unfathomable riches of fresh water and aquatic wildlife, surely healthy water would be enjoyed with glad and thankful hearts. Wouldn’t it?

We approach Syncrude on a narrow road between two tailing lakes

We approach Syncrude on a narrow road between two tailing lakes

I did too, until I began to drink it these last few days.  The first swallow was a shock: My little aluminum canteen reeked of volatile chemicals. With limited alternatives, I held my breath, closed my eyes and drank. And then I heard the stories from the people who live here – of bile duct cancers, of stomach cancers, of lupus; doctors telling of “rare and aggressive diseases that should not occur in small communities;” mothers telling of “pneumonia as common as the cold.”

And then I met a Chipewyan woman from Fort MacKay downstream from these tailing lakes. “We haven’t used the water in ten years,” she said. “We’re bathing our children in bottled water. We take short showers…. Imagine tucking your child into bed and explaining why his feet are burning, and his legs are swollen. Every other child has rashes and sores on her body.”

Imagine your child...

Imagine your child…

To listen to such lamentation as an American over-consumer is nearly unbearable. “They say we’re prospering?” she asks a small circle who have gathered to listen. She then directs her words to Canada’s pro-tar-sands Prime Minister: “Tell Stephen Harper to come to our community and see what his prosperity looks like! Too many people are in the hospital. Our elders are lying there now.”

The Healing Walk passes Syncrude

The Healing Walk passes Syncrude

And what could possibly have brought on this spate of diseases? The evidence opened before us as we marched some twenty kilometers through the tar sands tailing ponds. Sound canons thundered constantly over the toxic lakes, to prevent birds from coming near. Chain link fences kept us at arm’s length us from the mercury, naphthenic acids, lead and other toxins concentrated in the sludge.

But the fences can’t keep the toxins from coming to us. The tar sands tailing lakes are located along the Athabasca, from which Syncrude and the other mine operators extract the water they need to process the tar-like “bitumen” for shipping through pipelines, like the proposed Keystone XL. Estimates vary, but some Canadian experts have concluded that the tailing lakes leak 11 million liters of toxic tailings every single day.

And so that’s what we have been walking through. That’s what we are praying about. And that’s what I’m drinking – if only for a few days.

But imagine telling your own child, not some dark-skinned little girl of another ethnic group. Picture your own. How does it feel to you?

I’m not feeling so good, myself.

10 thoughts on “My Healing Walk Through the Tar Sands

    1. John Elwood

      Hunter, it’s an honor to me that you care about this. But I’m not entirely sure what and who I represent, as a comfortably affluent participant in the oil economy, and as a Christian. I’ll post more about that tomorrow, when I’m back in Jersey. Peace.

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  2. John Silvius

    Thanks for your convicting account of the Tar Sands. So much of the attention politically seems to focus on whether or not the Keystone PL will damage the environment. This account of the impact on creation in Alberta needs more attention. I am apologetically surprised that Environment Canada has not done more to impose controls on emissions of naphthenic acids and other negative effects of the Syncrude operation.

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