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The High Cost of Oil

Tar sands being scooped and loaded. Oil companies hope to mine the entirety of Fort McKay's heavy-grade bitumen deposits by 2030. Photo: Aaron Huey

The crude that would feed the XL pipeline comes from a once pristine part of Alberta that now resembles mining operations on a sci-fi planet. At places like Fort McKay, home to First Nations people who've lived there for centuries, the money is great but the environmental and health impacts are exceedingly grim. The world has to have fuel. Is this simply the pr

Less than a year after the end of World War II, when Celina Harpe was just seven, she sat beside her grandfather on the steps of his cabin, overlooking the Athabasca River in the northern reaches of Alberta.

“It was spring,” she told me recently—the time of breakup, when the ground is still packed with pearlescent snow but the sun weakens the river ice until it cracks and starts to move. The force of the current pushed giant floes onto the banks and up the ridge.

“Look at the beautiful river, the way it looks now,” her grandfather said.

Adam Boucher was an elder of the Fort McKay First Nation, descended directly from the hereditary leaders of the Chipewyan people, who in the 19th century had intermarried with French and Scottish voyageurs as they established traplines for the North West Company and Hudson’s Bay Company. Boucher was a child when his uncle, as headman of the Chipewyan band, added his X to Treaty 8 with Queen Victoria, surrendering their ancestral land around Moose Lake to Canada and Great Britain in return for a reserve along the Athabasca. Aside from land used for logging, mining, or white settlements, the people of Fort McKay were promised unfettered rights to hunt and fish in perpetuity. “As long as the sun shines and the river flows and the hills don’t move,” Boucher later recalled.

In the 50 years that followed, Boucher saw his people’s access to hunting grounds and traplines fenced off as logging interests moved in. And in 1946, after suffering through wartime shortages of oil and gas, Alberta’s provincial government unveiled a joint project with an Edmonton-based company called Oil Sands, Ltd. They made plans to build a test facility at Bitumount, barely 15 miles downriver, to prove the viability of an experimental hot-water process developed by Karl Clark of the Alberta Research Council, a provincial R&D corporation. The goal was to separate heavy-grade bitumen—a black, gooey form of petroleum, also known as tar sands—from the deposits underlying the ground all around Fort McKay. By the time of the ice breakup that year, the site had been cleared and crew quarters erected, and a power plant was swiftly being built.

Seeing all this, Boucher feared losing access to the spruce bogs around McClelland Lake, not far from the Bitumount site, where First Nations people gathered blueberries, cranberries, and kinnikinnick. He worried that mining would inevitably harm the river.

“You know the water is sacred?” he asked his granddaughter. “You know we need the trees?”

Celina nodded. “Yeah, I understand that.”

“I see it, what’s going to happen in the future,” Boucher said. “All the trees will be gone. They’re going to dig big holes, and they’re going to dig up all that black stuff. You know that tar? That’s what they’re after.”

They sat quietly on his steps, watching the river move.

“I won’t see it. I’m too old,” Boucher told her. “But if you have children, you’re going to have to tell them not to drink this river water.”

Taking Canadian Highway 63 straight north from Fort McMurray, during the half-lit hours of the morning commute, I moved past the old downtown, with its bars and weekly-rate hotels, past the sprawling suburbs and high-speed ring road, into expanses of peat-rich muskeg and forests of tamarack and spruce. As the sun climbed, cars became scarce and the road seemed to stretch endlessly toward the horizon. Traveling from McMurray to McKay doesn’t take long—it’s less than 40 miles—but the transformation you see in that short distance is astounding.

At first there were few signs of the massive development I’d been told to expect, but the farther I drove, the more industrial the scene became. There were 18-wheelers barreling up to unmarked interchanges and thundering into merge lanes, along with passenger coaches and repurposed school buses ferrying workers from camp barracks to a place that locals euphemistically call “the site.”

The trucks and miners are headed not toward a single site but to a patchwork of them. If you were viewing this region from the air, you’d see a crazy quilt of open-pit mines flanking the Athabasca River for more than ten miles. There, at the bottom of cavernous quarries roughly 150 feet down, dragline conveyers scrape away at a dense layer of sandstone suffused with tar. The method of mining and refining this resource, the latest development in our desperate effort to extend the fossil-fuel era by a few more decades, is one of the most labor-intensive extraction processes ever undertaken. It requires grand-scale removal just to make the narrow profit margins work. More than 250 square miles of former boreal forest have already been stripped away, and by 2030 the industry hopes to extract all the mineable tar sands from the 1,853 square miles of deposits, an area larger than Rhode Island.

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A Syncrude refinery near Fort McKay.   Photo: Aaron Huey

Tar sands have been mined here on a smaller scale since the 1920s, but the U.S. government gave the industry a huge boost when it invaded Iraq in 2003, sending global oil prices sky-high. Since then two new pit mines have opened north of Fort McMurray, another three are under development, and still more extraction is on the way, by means of a process called SAG-D. That stands for steam-assisted gravity drainage, which involves using high-pressure steam to make the tar sands less viscous and easier to move through pipes.

How you view these developments is something of a Rorschach test. For people who see the oil industry as an all-consuming beast, tar-sands mining looks like the stark, apocalyptic endgame of extreme fossil-fuel extraction. Environmentalists point out that all this massive machinery burns almost two barrels of oil for every three taken out; that the steam-separation process is one of the most water-intensive in the world; and that the resulting fuel, according to estimates by the U.S. State Department, emits about 
17 percent more greenhouse gas when burned than standard light-grade crude (a number that watchdogs like the Natural Resources Defense Council insist is a lowball guess).

The greatest concern is what happens if this development is allowed to continue. The oil industry itself estimates that less than 
10 percent of tar-sands deposits in Alberta have been extracted. James Hansen, the former director of the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies and one of the first scientists to sound the alarm about climate change in the 1980s, estimates that the remaining reserves of tar sands contain twice the amount of carbon dioxide emitted by the entire global oil industry—in all of human history. Hansen has been unequivocal about the consequences if such resources are exploited. “If Canada proceeds, and we do nothing,” he wrote in a New York Times editorial, “it will be game over for the climate.”

All of which might have escaped the attention of the American public if not for the Keystone XL pipeline. The proposed $7 billion project, intended to carry bitumen and a soup of chemical diluents from northern Alberta to refineries along the Texas Gulf Coast—for further processing and shipment around the world—has turned into a six-year battle between environmentalists and industry supporters. As the proposal has made its way through State Department reviews and court fights, other pipelines carrying similar heavy-grade Alberta crude have ruptured in various parts of the U.S. The most notable are Enbridge’s Line 6B, which spilled more than a million gallons into Michigan’s Kalamazoo River in 2010, and ExxonMobil’s Pegasus pipeline, which in 2013 spilled hundreds of thousands of gallons in Mayflower, Arkansas. These accidents have forced people to ask just how safe it is to extract, transport, refine, and burn tar-sands crude.

This has been a major controversy for years in the U.S., where the Obama administration is simultaneously attempting to placate environmentalists and encourage a fossil-fuels industry that has created more new jobs than most other sectors since the 2007 recession. It’s also a hot topic in Canada. Enbridge’s Northern Gateway Pipelines, which would carry tar sands to the Pacific Coast of British Columbia for shipment to China and other parts of Asia on oil tankers, have met with nearly a decade of heated opposition from Canadians—including more than 130 First Nations. Last year, to draw more attention to tar-sands development, Ontario native Neil Young traveled to the mining region to see things up close. “Fort McMurray looks like Hiroshima,” he declared afterward. “Fort McMurray is a wasteland.”

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A boy from Fort McKay plays inside a scoop shovel set up at a highway rest stop near Syncrude's refinery.   Photo: Aaron Huey

Industry backers and mine employees were outraged, and many took to Twitter, posting photos of their backyards or favorite hiking spots with the hashtag #myhiroshima. To them, tar sands represent an economic lifeline and the gateway to North American energy independence. Many Albertans enjoy thumbing their noses at environmentalists, who they dismiss as whiney doomsayers.

They also complain that critics have obsessed too much over the boomtown ugliness on view at Fort McMurray. The much covered gold-rush scene there has featured 40,000 young itinerant workers who have flocked to the region hoping to get rich quick, bars and gambling parlors lining the highway, rampant prostitution, Hell’s Angels competing with a Somali gang for control of the cocaine trade, and more than 100 traffic deaths in a span of only eight years.

Two years ago, after yet another journalist wrote about the booze, drugs, and hookers, the town fathers of Fort McMurray, population 75,000, decided to clean up their image. They shuttered Teasers Strip Bar, the Oil Can Tavern, Diggers Variety Club, and the Oil Sands Hotel. Soon after, the whole sin district was razed and turned into a parking lot. Mine workers now do their drinking inside the locked-down confines of the residential camps, which sit roughly 20 miles north of Fort McMurray and are closed off with chain-link fencing and barbed wire to thwart nosy reporters, including this one. Officials at both of the main companies operating in the area—Suncor and Syncrude—declined to let me view mining operations or the camps when I was in Alberta.

Meanwhile, though the short-term social ills of the extraction boom may have been tamed a bit, there’s been surprisingly little discussion of the long-term environmental consequences for the string of First Nations villages along the Athabasca River, downstream from the interconnected tailings ponds of chemical by-products produced by the tar-sands refining process. Neil Young’s Hiroshima comparison grabbed headlines, but his more explosive claim focused on research presented by provincial doctors working in those communities. “The native peoples are dying,” Young said at a September 2013 press conference in Washington, D.C. “People are sick. People are dying because of this. All the First Nations people up there are threatened.”

When I called Celina Harpe, now age 75 and an elder in the Dene band of the Fort McKay First Nation, she said it was true. People were dying young and unexpectedly, of rare and aggressive forms of cancer.

“By the time they find out, they’re on stage four,” she said. “Too late. They’re gone.” She urged me to come see for myself but discouraged the idea of staying overnight. The lights of the 24-hour mining operations just over the ridge meant that her village was never dark anymore, and the echoes of nearby air cannons all through the night made it impossible to sleep. “You go to bed, it’s like you’re in a war zone.”

Worst of all, everything her grandfather predicted had come to pass. The trees were being clear-cut, the moose and beavers were disappearing. All the native villages along the Athabasca River were fearful of contamination. And just as her grandfather had warned, it wasn’t safe to drink the water.

The headwaters of the Athabasca pool up under the Columbia Icefield in Alberta’s Jasper National Park before running north, carrying snowmelt for more than 800 miles. In the 19th century, when Scottish fur traders hit impassible rapids during their explorations, they put out and founded Fort McMurray. Eventually they pushed farther north, establishing traplines, searching out navigable routes to the Arctic, and founding Fort McKay and Fort Chipewyan, where the river widens and empties into Lake Athabasca.

Fort McKay, with just over 400 permanent residents, has traditionally been the least developed and discussed of these settlements—neither as big and hurly-burly as Fort Mac nor as remote and idyllic as Fort Chip. Instead, McKay has been significant as the contact point, the place where the ambitions of white traders (and, later, white loggers and oil speculators) meet the traditional interests of northern bands dependent on wild game for food and fur-bearing animals for warmth and shelter.

McKay was never accessible enough to be subsumed by the arrival of white culture, but it was too close not to feel its impact—especially after the arrival of Highway 63 in 1964, and then the logging road that connected the boreal forests north of McKay to the highway that leads back to McMurray.

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Suncor mine and tailings ponds near Fort McKay.   Photo: Aaron Huey

In the late sixties, the Alberta government partnered with Sunoco to form the Great Canadian Oil Sands consortium—today known as Suncor. Soon after, the 1973 Arab Oil Embargo sent oil prices soaring, and provincial regulators ushered through a second project, known as Syncrude. This was the beginning of a decades-long struggle that pitted the people of Fort McKay against the collective clout of Canada’s largest petroleum companies, with the government—a party that had a vested financial interest—serving as sole adjudicator.

Seemingly unchecked by regulations, the mines expanded into giant black caverns, where massive shovel loaders now scoop the coal-like rock, 70 tons at a time, into dump trucks three stories tall. Heavy haulers deliver mined material into a double-roll crusher, then a conveyor system carries the ground-up rock into a cyclofeeder.

In sprawling coking and refining facilities, hot water melts the tar sands into a slurry, sending clouds of thick smoke and steam across the landscape. What remains is chemically separated to produce a thin top layer of bitumen froth, but everything else—the heavy sand, the toxic wastewater, and the leftover chemicals—is by-product, and it’s emptied into tailings ponds the size of enormous lakes.

As I drove along the highway, piles of discarded sand, held for eventual reclamation, swirled up into a lashing white dust storm, mixing with the smoke and fly ash billowing from the stacks of an on-site refinery at Syncrude. The embankment dam along the road, the main containment wall for the Mildred Lake Settling Basin, is more than 11 miles long, one of the largest earthen dams on the planet. At the time, the rainbow-sheened ponds bracketing the highway spread across more than 50 square miles of former wetlands, and they are expanding at a rate of nearly half a billion gallons each day.

Lakes this large and foul have an impact. In April 2008, Robert Colson, a heavy-equipment operator with Syncrude, spotted what he could only describe as lumps floating on the company’s nearby Aurora tailings pond. He had been puzzling over the scene for a few minutes when a group of ducks came flapping in and landed. “And that’s when I realized what was going on,” he said later. More than 1,600 migrating waterfowl were killed on that day alone.

When I pulled off onto a sandy turnout to get a better look at the Mildred Lake Basin, I could see a parade of empty yellow hazmat suits propped up on the banks and set bobbing on tethered oil drums in the lakes. Their arms stretched wide in a pantomime of panic, they served as makeshift scarecrows, nicknamed “bitu-men.” I could hear the constant fire of 100-decibel air cannons, installed on the shoreline and timed to go off intermittently to frighten away waterfowl and other birds.

All of this was in place at the time of the waterfowl deaths in 2008, but none of it had been switched on. Still, Syncrude officials denied that they bore responsibility, saying the deaths were “an act of God.” The government eventually levied only a nominal fine—roughly eight hours’ worth of corporate revenues—and even then Syncrude complained that these environmental strictures were unworkable, warning that the company would be breaking the law every hour of every day.

I turned west from the highway, toward Fort McKay, and drove past construction crews who were widening the old road. I could see the signs of recent expansion everywhere—heavy equipment parked in newly laid gravel yards, surges of black smoke rising from diesel engines in the distance. When I finally reached the edge of the village, I wasn’t sure I’d actually arrived. A looping mud road crisscrossed the tree-stripped hillside, where haphazard clapboard houses were scattered. Trucks and four-wheelers stood parked in gravel driveways and on patchy front lawns.

Fort McKay has no restaurant and just one market, which was shuttered when I was there. Many of the residents, most of them registered First Nations members, get by on some form of subsistence hunting or trapping, as allowed for in Treaty 8. Tepee smokehouses rose from behind backyard privacy fences. As I moved along the river, a potent ammonia smell hung in the air, but it was a sunny day and people were packing tackle and rods onto their motorboats.

But the river is no longer the central sustaining force in the community. After the start of the latest tar-sands boom, fishermen began to report rising numbers of deformities: whitefish and walleye with tumors and skin lesions, burbot with misshapen spines, northern pike with bulging eyes.

In 2007, the Fort Chipewyan health board asked Kevin Timoney, a scientist who had done extensive work in the Peace-Athabasca Delta area, to study the water and soil quality in the region. His findings were distressing: elevated levels of arsenic and mercury in fish, the water supply, even the river sediment. Timoney estimated that tar-sands mines were exposing deposits of heavy metals, especially arsenic, which were then running into the water. Alberta Health and Wellness, the provincial health ministry, conceded that arsenic exposure was widespread but countered that it was impossible to control “due to its presence in the earth’s crust.”

Soon after, a report by the Pembina Institute, an environmental-impact assessment firm, estimated that Tar Island Pond One, owned by Suncor, was producing a steady daily leak of more than 1.5 million gallons of toxic chemicals and heavy metals including arsenic, mercury, and lead. By Suncor’s own admission, the pond released 400,000 gallons of sludge into the river every day, almost enough to fill a river barge. And that was just one pond. Environmental Defence, a Canadian environmental-action group, estimated the combined daily leakage from all the tailings ponds into the Athabasca River to be nearly three million gallons. But still the government refused to intercede.

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Suncor's operations near Fort McKay.   Photo: Aaron Huey

The situation has grown so grim that the United Nations issued a call in May 2014 for the Canadian government to launch a special inquiry into the treatment of First Nations people, specifically citing, among other concerns, that more than half of all native people on government reserves face health risks due to contaminated drinking water. Government officials have failed to act, the report said, because they see the interests of native people as counter to the best interests of Canadians. James Anaya, then the U.N.’s special rapporteur on indigenous rights, warned that lawsuits and government claims over treaty violations have languished so long that many First Nations have “all but given up.”

Officials at Suncor declined to discuss the environmental impact of tar-sands mining with Outside. Will Gibson, Syncrude’s media relations adviser, said in a phone interview: “Human activity is going to have an impact. Industrial activity is going to have an impact. For us, it’s important to mitigate that impact.” He pointed to Syncrude’s large expenditures on R&D for new processes aimed at reducing emissions and minimizing the negative effects of mining. As for health risks, he said that the company’s extraction techniques, past or present, “would never have any impact in terms of causing cancer.”

Celina Harpe's home, a tiny fifties-era house with slate blue clapboard siding, sits below the roadbed, perched on a bend in the Athabasca. Harpe greeted me there but didn’t want to talk inside, because it was cramped and drafty. Instead we walked across the road to the elder-care section of the community center.

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Celina Harpe, an elder in the Fort McKay First Nation.   Photo: Aaron Huey

Harpe is small and unsteady, but her short curly hair is still dark and her eyes are bright behind her square, tinted glasses. Seated inside, looking out through a broad bank of picture windows, she remembered again how her grandfather had warned her about the river’s future. Soon, she said, she would have no choice but to move to Fort McMurray. She turned her hands over to show me lesions on her knuckles and between her fingers. “My hands get all these sores. Do you see?” she said. “We can’t drink that tap water because it’s no good…. It’s got too much chemicals. If it can do this to your hands, what do you think it’s doing to our insides, you know?”

Harpe said it hadn’t always been this way. Her sister, Dorothy McDonald, became chief in the eighties, after their father, Phillip McDonald, was killed in a crash on the logging road in 1976. Before Dorothy took over, the encroachment of tar-sands development had already left many people concerned about their health, so Celina’s father had arranged for pump stations to be installed, dispensing water trucked in from Fort McMurray. But one pump tower burned in late 1981, and another froze during the bitter winter of 1982. People went down to the river and drew their drinking water straight from the Athabasca.

After several weeks of getting by this way, Dorothy, as the newly elected chief, received a message from Suncor: there had been a spill. One of Suncor’s tailings ponds had been releasing oil, grease, and other contaminants into the river for days—up to 17 times more than the legally permitted limit. McDonald demanded action from officials at Alberta Environment—the province’s main environmental protection agency—but they declined to do anything.

“So she took Suncor and Syncrude to court,” Harpe said. “She charged them for polluting the water.” A provincial judge eventually found Suncor guilty of violating the Fisheries Act—not of poisoning the community—and ordered the company to pay just $8,000.

About the same time, Harpe, who had gotten a job as a community-health nurse because she could translate for English-speaking provincial doctors and tribal people who spoke Cree and Dene, started to notice a rash of illnesses that had never affected Fort McKay before. Later, when she became the first native liaison coordinator at the Fort McMurray hospital, she heard similar complaints coming from the residents of Fort Chipewyan. When doctors came back with diagnoses, she had trouble translating. “We never heard of asthma,” Harpe told me. “We didn’t know there was such thing as cancer. We had no name for it.” Before long it seemed as if everyone in the community was sick or had a family member who was seriously ill.

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Shovels and wreaths at the funeral of Joe Vermillion, a resident of Fort Chipewyan who died of lung cancer.   Photo: Aaron Huey

“I lost one son first with sickness before I lost my husband,” Harpe said. The main room of the community center was ringed with black-and-white portraits of band members. “That’s me there,” she said. Harpe couldn’t remember exactly when the photos were taken, but her portrait looked to be about a decade old.

“Beside me there, that lady, she died,” she said, pointing to the next photograph. “My cousin Stella, she’s gone. She just died in January.” She began moving down the line. “Her, my auntie, there in that corner by the flowers, she’s gone. He died last year, that gentleman. That guy is still alive. He died, this other one that’s next to Johnny.” Many of the people didn’t appear old, 50 at most. “That couple there, they’re gone. He’s still alive. She’s still alive. She’s gone. She’s gone. She’s gone. He’s gone. She’s gone. That lady’s gone.” I asked at what age people were being diagnosed with cancer. “People are dying at 35, 40,” she said. She shook her head.

“It’s pretty sad, because my father was a good chief. My sister was such a good chief. My sister Dorothy’s right there,” she said, pointing to a portrait. “Dorothy passed away.”

Dayle Hyde turned into the dirt parking lot of the Fort McKay community school. She wanted to show me another side of the village, starting with the place where her own education began—and where her father was the teacher, and later principal, for more than three decades. Hyde, in her early thirties, is worldly compared with a lot of the younger people in Fort McKay. She wears cat-eye glasses and has a nose ring. She went away to high school in Fort McMurray and later graduated from the University of Alberta with a degree in native studies and a minor in art and design. Now she’s the communications director for the Fort McKay First Nation. She’s also the middle child of Dorothy McDonald.

Hyde said her mother’s court case had energized Fort McKay and sparked further protest. Most notably, in 1983, McDonald had organized a blockade of the logging road, the one where Dorothy’s father had died. “They allowed one logging truck to go through the community,” Hyde said, “and then they erected a roadblock and wouldn’t allow any others to go through.”

The Royal Canadian Mounted Police were sent to end the standoff, but McDonald refused to back down. Though the January dark sent temperatures plummeting to minus 20, band members kept vigil around the clock. Finally, on the sixth day, three cabinet ministers agreed to hear out Fort McKay’s concerns about logging and tar sands.

To honor McDonald and her stand, the band later erected an enormous community center on the same road as the old blockade site. But Hyde balked at the notion, pushed by elders like her aunt, Celina Harpe, that the roadblock was the kind of opposition the community needed now.

“Let me make something clear,” Hyde said. “When my mom was being very aggressive, we didn’t get anywhere.” Yes, the government arranged for meetings, but nothing changed. Officials commissioned studies that were never completed and made empty promises that were designed only to defuse tension.

The real turning point, Hyde said, was when her mother began to focus on what she called “parallel development”—the concept that if industry was benefiting, then the community should benefit in a proportionate manner. Pollution should be offset by jobs and contracts for native-owned companies.

Tribal leaders started by getting a single janitorial contract, for cleaning offices at Suncor’s headquarters. McDonald also pushed the company to give something back to McKay. She convinced executives to make a small donation toward the construction of a playground at the local school—the first project sponsored by one of the tar-sands developers—and the school’s principal (her husband, Rod Hyde) got matching funds from Suncor. This was the end of vocal opposition, Hyde said, and the beginning of negotiation and partnership.

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Tar-sands mines and tailings ponds, near Fort McKay, in Alberta, operated by Canadian companies Syncrude and Suncor.   Photo: Aaron Huey

In 1987, McDonald filed a claim with the Canadian government, charging that 23,000 acres of property surrounding Fort McKay—which were being developed under private lease—were part of the land deeded to the band under Treaty 8. Instead of claiming that the community had been harmed by development, she contended that it was owed compensation for treaty violations. In 2006, two decades after McDonald filed the original claim and a year after her death due to complications from lupus, the Treaty Land Entitlement Settlement Agreement paid the band $41.5 million in compensation for land that belonged to them under the treaty—and, more important, agreed that they were titleholders to 8,200 acres of land under exploration for tar-sands development.

Hyde drove me up the ridge to where construction crews were building new modern homes and laying cobblestone driveways. It could have been an affluent suburb to any midsize city in America—all aluminum siding and fake stone facades. People down by the river have derisively dubbed this new development Beverly Hills. They accuse Jim Boucher, the chief for 24 of the past 28 years—and a man who originally opposed oil-sands projects but now supports them—of putting profits over health. Celina Harpe was blunt. “He’s selling us out,” she said. “He doesn’t care as long as it puts money in his pocket.”

Boucher declined to speak with me, but in interviews with local media he has bristled at such characterizations. “We were antidevelopment for a long time,” he told one reporter. “But at the end of the day, it came down to the point where government would approve the projects and our rights were diminished by virtue of what they were doing. Gradually, we came to recognize we had no other option but to develop an economy of our own.”

Hyde said the big houses were part of the mixed bag created by the tar-sands boom. Companies netting hundreds of millions of dollars per year are reaping huge profits, but they’re also paying excellent wages: in Fort McKay, entry-level skilled workers can expect to pull down six-figure salaries.

“It’s not been accepted per se, but it’s a realization that if we’re going to stay here, this is one of the things that we have to deal with,” she said. “We’re never going to stop the oil-sands development. It’s never going to go away until the oil is gone. The best that we can do is to try to mitigate some of those negative impacts.”

Trying to lessen the impact of tar-sands development seems a nearly impossible task. Everything about the work sites is sprawling, and it stretches ever closer to the edges of Fort McKay. The tree line across the river is now denuded in places where new digging is set to begin. Fences and barricades have been erected along newly constructed mine roads, blocking band members—often without warning—from reaching traditional hunting grounds. And new projects bring more and more mine workers.

The residential camps where those workers live house thousands of people, almost all of them men from Canada and the U.S., in row after row of modular multi-story buildings. At Suncor, the barracks—square roofed and vinyl sided, like overgrown trailer homes—stand close to the highway but are ensconced behind tall chain-link fences. At Syncrude, the buildings are painted with black and white stripes, practically daring those who live inside to compare them to cell blocks. And many do. Though photography is forbidden and workers are instructed not to write publicly about life in camp, there are many YouTube videos, Twitter pictures, Facebook updates, and blog entries complaining about the drab institutional architecture and lockdown conditions. One especially poetic employee wrote online that Wing 39 of Imperial Oil’s Wapasu Camp East, where he lived, stood “austere in the Arctic night,” bringing to mind “prison camps of the Soviet Gulag.”

Inside, hundreds of identical eight-by-ten rooms stretch down long corridors, each furnished only with a bed, a nightstand, and maybe a TV. There are game rooms and large cafeterias, but workers aren’t afforded much downtime. Most are pulling 12-to-14-hour shifts for three weeks straight. Every morning they are loaded onto buses, swiping site badges and passing through metal detectors. And they work nonstop, even through the subzero cold and the round-the-clock darkness of deep winter, until they are returned to the camps for sleep.

The workers endure these conditions for a simple reason: most can earn salaries between $100,000 and $200,000 per year. If a man works and puts away his money for two or three years, it’s possible to leave with a nest egg of half a million dollars. And once they’ve done that, these men will leave northern Alberta and never look back.

It’s not so simple for the First Nations mine workers of Fort McKay. Most of the major tar-sands developers reserve positions for native applicants—and now, employing more than 1,600 full-time First Nations workers, they are virtually the only game in town. Even the people who don’t work directly in the mines are often employed by subcontractors. The Fort McKay Group of Companies, which began with that single janitorial contract, has an earthworks division to remove mud from tailings ponds and reinforce containment dykes, but it also builds access roads and installs guardrails. The companies have joint ventures offering catering and lodging services for mine workers. They provide office help and logistical assistance. No matter how far removed, the jobs in Fort McKay exist because of the tar-sands developers, so even those who hate the mines now depend on them, whatever the risks.

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"Fort Chip, walked away from," O'Connor told me. "And now McKay's been walked away from."   Photo: Aaron Huey

Celina Harpe’s husband worked as a crane operator at one of the mine sites. One night, riding the transport boat home, he fell into the Athabasca River. He struggled to keep himself afloat, but his rubber work boots filled with water and pulled him under. Such sudden deaths are a fact of life in the mines; there have been six on-site fatalities so far in 2014. But for most people in Fort McKay, it’s not the threat of workplace injury that worries them. Instead they fear that on-site exposure to chemicals and fumes, followed by exposure from drinking water and wild game and breathing toxic emissions every night, means that they never get any relief from the effects of the development. In the eighties, Dorothy McDonald commissioned an air-quality study by epidemiologists at the University of British Columbia, who tested hair samples and found that four of McKay’s 44 children had above-normal levels of lead. Long before residents of Fort McKay have a chance to set foot on a work site or earn a single paycheck, they are at elevated risk of exposure to heavy metals. One known outcome of such exposure is autoimmune disorders—particularly lupus, which is what shortened the life of Dorothy McDonald.

So while their white counterparts get rich working in the mines and then head back south to Fort McMurray or Edmonton or the U.S., the native residents of Fort McKay stay and face the uncertain consequences.

When I told Dr. John O’Connor what Dayle Hyde had told me, that band leaders of Fort McKay were looking for ways to work with developers to minimize impact, his face tightened with worry. Officially, O’Connor is the director of Health and Human Services at Fort McKay First Nation, but in practice he’s a country doctor, shuttling from one village to the next along the Athabasca to provide primary health care. White bearded, with a stethoscope always around his neck, he moves slowly, taking his time with each patient. But when we discussed tar-sands developers and the Alberta government, O’Connor couldn’t hide his misgivings. Together, he said, industry and government have forced communities like Fort McKay to join in their own destruction.

“It’s almost a choice of, ‘Do I die by starvation, or do I die by poisoning?’ ” he said, his voice soft and resigned. O’Connor, 57, grew up in the working-class section of Limerick City, Ireland, and retains a gentle accent. “Damned if you do and damned if you don’t. What decision can you make?”

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Dr. John O'Connor, director of Health and Human Services at Fort McKay First Nation, shuttles from one village to the next providing primary health care.   Photo: Aaron Huey

O’Connor questions the very notion of parallel development. Certainly, the profits are not shared equally—and neither are the risks. In 2003, not long after O’Connor began making weekly visits to Fort Chipewyan in his capacity as an Alberta provincial doctor, the local school-bus driver came in to schedule an appointment. He had lost a lot of weight and couldn’t figure out why. Blood tests revealed that he was suffering from cholangiocarcinoma, an aggressive form of cancer that attacks the bile ducts. O’Connor had never seen a single patient with it. “Never in my practice did I expect to see a case,” he told me.

But O’Connor knew a great deal about the illness because his father had been diagnosed with it a decade before—and died, as did O’Connor’s patient in Fort Chip, within a matter of weeks. He knew the illness was exceedingly rare, affecting just one in 100,000 people, but soon there were more cases: one in 2005 and another in 2006. Two more people died before he could do blood work. And it wasn’t just cancer of the bile ducts. Within five years, O’Connor diagnosed five cases of leukemia and four cases of lymphoma. Six residents of Fort Chip died of colon cancer.

In March 2006, Alberta Health and Wellness announced that it would conduct a thorough review of death and cancer statistics. They would track people through their treaty and federal ID numbers to include tribal members who had left Fort Chipewyan and became sick elsewhere. They would also study the related communities in other parts of the Athabasca River Valley. But then, just a few weeks later, Health Canada and Alberta Health and Wellness announced that the cancer rates in Fort Chip “were comparable to the provincial average.” Case closed.

O’Connor claims that government officials admitted to him that they were missing data from several months in 2004 and 2005, the most recent years available, but only alerted him to this after the study was completed. Worse, a review conducted by the National Review of Medicine, a prominent medical newspaper in Canada, alleged that the government had fudged the average by using a population parameter of 30,000 instead of the village’s actual population of fewer than 1,000. Multiple subsequent tests concluded that the cases ruled into the government study actually represented about a 30 percent higher rate of cancer than expected for a community the size of Fort Chip.

Around the same time, Suncor commissioned an independent study to evaluate the human-health risk leading up to a proposed expansion project that has since been scrapped. Normally, authorities would consider more than one extra case of cancer in a population of 100,000 people to represent an unacceptable public-health hazard. The Suncor report—undertaken by Golder Associates, a firm that routinely performs environmental-impact assessments for the province—found that elevated rates of arsenic in Fort Chipewyan’s drinking water had raised the community’s cancer risk by the 
equivalent of 450 extra cases per 100,000.

Alberta Health and Wellness quickly rejected the findings and announced that the agency would do its own study. In the meantime, Canada’s health minister went before the Legislative Assembly of Alberta to assure lawmakers, “We’re satisfied that arsenic levels in the area are actually lower than in other areas.”

After O’Connor publicly complained about the investigation, he received a letter from the registrar of the College of Physicians and Surgeons of Alberta saying that Health Canada believed he’d made false allegations of elevated cancer rates, raised undue alarm in the community, obstructed efforts to investigate his claims, and engendered mistrust in Health Canada. If the review committee upheld the claims, O’Connor’s attorney warned him, it would be “career ending.” He told me that when he heard this news, he ran to the bathroom and vomited.

But as the review of O’Connor slowly progressed, other researchers began to collect data and uncover trends supporting his theories. In February 2009, the Alberta Cancer Board prepared a new independent analysis of the cancer data collected by Health Canada and Alberta Health and Wellness—this time including the full data.

The language of the report was clear. “The number of cancer cases observed in Fort Chipewyan was higher than expected for all cancers combined and for specific types of cancer, such as biliary-tract cancer and cancers in the blood and lymphatic system,” the authors concluded. They also acknowledged that cancer rates in the community had climbed in recent years.

In November 2009, the College of Physicians and Surgeons of Alberta dropped all charges against O’Connor—though it insisted that he could have been more cooperative with government efforts to investigate. By then O’Connor was the director of Health and Human Services at Fort McKay. He promised to be as helpful as possible if the government would perform a health study of the Fort McKay community. The village shared so many family connections with Fort Chip, he argued, it only made sense to study them together. Initially, provincial authorities promised to do just that—and even said they would appoint O’Connor to the investigatory team. But years have passed and nothing has happened.

“Fort Chip, walked away from,” O’Connor told me. “And now McKay’s been walked away from.”

When I arrived at Mel Grandjamb’s house, set on the fringe of all the new construction, he was waiting in his driveway next to a motor home. Behind him stood his three four-wheelers, his motorboat, his sixties-era muscle car, and his Hummer. Inside, the hallway of his house was covered in furs from one end to the other.

Grandjamb, a chief of Fort McKay First Nation in the early nineties and the former CEO of the Fort McKay Group of Companies, is one of the last trapper holdouts in the community, maintaining his traplines to this day. Wolves, wolverines, martins, fishers, foxes, coyotes, lynx, beavers, rabbits: they hung on evenly spaced hooks, their metal provincial tags still intact. Grandjamb traps now as a way of staying connected to a traditional lifestyle he learned from his father in the backwoods around Moose Lake.

“My first couple of years, we actually used dog teams to the trapline,” he said. “No one uses dog teams anymore. That part of the culture is gone.”

But Grandjamb shrugged off the changeover to gas-powered engines, and he doesn’t fault the petroleum interests developing the tar sands. “Industry is industry,” he said. It exists for one purpose—profit—and pushes relentlessly toward that goal. If people want to control industry, they should elect government officials committed to strict regulation. “If there wasn’t a license to operate funded by the provincial government, these plants wouldn’t be operating,” he said.

As sanguine as Grandjamb seemed, the fact is that Fort McKay First Nation had opposed recent development northeast of Fort McKay, near Moose Lake, more vocally than it had at any time since Dorothy McDonald was chief. The spot, which is the ancestral home of both the Cree and the Dene, is sacred to band members. Around Moose Lake, he said, “you get out to your cabin, you hear the fire going and the wolves howling, and it’s life.”

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Syncrude operations in Fort McKay.   Photo: Aaron Huey

But then, in 2010, Brion Energy, a subsidiary of PetroChina, applied to start steam-assisted extraction of tar sands near Moose Lake. Band leaders, including Chief Jim Boucher, argued that the Brion project violated the buffer zone around Fort McKay, as established by their legal victory in 2006. Leaders in other villages rallied to their defense, hoping to set a firm precedent forcing developers to consult native communities before beginning new projects.

At that time, members of the Beaver Lake Cree Nation—south of Fort McMurray, in Lac La Biche—had a case before the Alberta Court of Appeals, in which they argued that tar sands have so harmed fish and wildlife populations that mining operations constitute a violation of their treaty rights to hunt, fish, and trap. And the Fort Chipewyan First Nation was challenging Shell Oil’s planned expansion of the Jackpine mine and the company’s Pierre River tar-sands project. “If Fort McKay can set precedents for what’s necessary to preserve their cultural rights,” Eriel Deranger, spokeswoman for Fort Chip, told a local newspaper, “it strengthens our arguments.”

But in February 2014, Fort McKay withdrew its complaint. A confidential deal with Brion promised that the Fort McKay reserve would receive environmental protections, construction contracts at the new site, and an undisclosed amount of cash—which the city expects to be in the millions. “We didn’t get a no-development zone,” Fort McKay’s lead negotiator, Alvaro Pinto, acknowledged.

Tribal members like Celina Harpe complained that Boucher didn’t press hard enough to protect the community. “They didn’t even ask for a 20-kilometer buffer zone,” she told me. “The chief sold us out without our consultation, without our advice.”

When Brion representatives came out to pitch the benefits of the deal in a meeting at the community center, they met with anger. According to Harpe, a Brion spokesperson told the crowd, “Native people are complaining, and they never had it so good.” Harpe said she leaped to her feet and began banging the table. “You white trash!” she shouted. “You don’t know how many people we buried, how much sorrow. You don’t know what the oil companies have done to us people.”

Dayle Hyde confessed to understanding how Harpe felt. “Moose Lake is sacred to the people of Fort McKay,” she told me. That’s where Dorothy McDonald had felt most at home and where her family had scattered her ashes. “That was our place to go, and now that’s going to be changed as well. It’s another thing we have to deal with and live with.”

But Hyde insisted that fighting Brion was unrealistic. To show me why, she spread out a large map of the area—and pointed out a provincial park to the west of Moose Lake, then the land specifically set aside for the Fort McKay reservation. All around, millions of acres were depicted in jagged squares of different colors, representing all the land already leased by dozens of oil companies. “This whole area,” Hyde said, “at some point or another, people are going to be trying to figure out how to develop it.” Alberta Energy Regulator, a private consulting firm specializing in energy resources, argued that Fort McKay’s request for a buffer zone should be denied because it would result “in sterilization of a significant bitumen resource.”

The Alberta government, despite Fort McKay’s legal foundation, sided with Brion. “When you have an industry that’s the economic driver of the whole province,” Hyde told me, “there doesn’t seem to be a neutral party. I was left with the impression that the Alberta government is more interested in the well-being of Alberta as a whole rather than the people in a small community. They wouldn’t be—what’s the word they used?—‘sterilizing’ the resources at Moose Lake for the betterment of a small number of people.”

She let out a quick, defensive laugh, then wavered nervously into tears. “I find this map really depressing.”

Mel Grandjamb understands the feeling, but he steadfastly refused to blame the oil companies. He had grown tired of environmentalists questioning the compromises of the leaders of Fort McKay—flying in on airplanes and arriving in cars to criticize the fossil-fuel industry.

“It’s good to say, Everything stops,” he said. “But does that mean I walk to town tonight? Does that mean I get in the canoe and I paddle upstream for three days?” He shook his head dismissively at the very idea. “They’ll never stop this. Never.”

Grandjamb's words seemed to follow me on my drive back across the toxic tailings ponds encircling Suncor and Syncrude, back down Highway 63 to the brand-new airport, where I dropped off my rental SUV and wandered through the terminal’s sole gift shop, selling piles of T-shirts that read FORT MCMURRAY and PROPERTY OF OIL SANDS.

Grandjamb was right: there’s no stopping this—not unless we collectively demand something different. And there are few signs of that happening.

Just days later, I got word that Alberta’s provincial government had approved another project. Originally explored by Koch Oil Sands, then sold to Prosper Petroleum for development, the site is slated for the extraction of tar sands from more land around Moose Lake, one more piece in the lease-map jigsaw puzzle. Leaders in Fort McKay complained to the Alberta government that they had not been “adequately consulted” about this new site and its potential health impacts on the reservation. The government agreed with Prosper that the community had failed to precisely define “adequately.”

Ted Genoways (@tedgenoways) is the author of The Chain: Farm, Factory, and the Fate of Our Food, published by Harper in October.