As 500 marchers rounded the north bend of the 14 km “tar sands loop” north of Fort McMurray Saturday afternoon during the fourth annual Tar Sands Healing Walk, one of the event organizers received a phone call from her home community of Fort Chipewyan.
“The oil leak on the Athabasca River is now 40 km long and the width of the entire river,” Eriel Deranger called out, running in alarm to inform people throughout the site with her cell phone pressed to her ear.
First reports of the unconfirmed petrochemical leak, described as a 5 km-wide slick about 60 km north of McMurray near the Poplar Grove reserve, came as Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation (ACFN) Chief Allan Adam was speaking out against the industry’s toll on his First Nation’s traditional territory and community located downstream during a press conference leading up to the walk that morning.
Not staying for the walk, Adam returned to Fort Chipewyan to address the situation as it moved toward the community. He flew over the site late Saturday afternoon, reporting the sheen now stretched over 100 km and had soaked river banks.
According to a statement released Sunday by the First Nation, the sheen “from pictures and eyewitness accounts” appeared to be petrochemical in nature.
The First Nation reported the possible spill to both the Alberta Energy Regulator and the department of Environment and Sustainable Resource Development (ESRD) and took samples and photos of its own.
ESRD said it could not find a source of the sheen and that it was likely natural – a combination of sand, clay and other suspended materials, including bitumen contained along the banks of the river.
“We did a helicopter survey of the river from Fort McMurray to Fort Chipewyan and we could not find any indication of a spill,” ERSD spokesperson Jessica Potter told The Journal.
“Because we can’t confirm a spill, we are going to be doing some river sampling just to be sure. So as far as we’re concerned, it’s still under investigation,” Potter said.
Oil companies were instructed to do inspections and none reported upsets.
Though the government maintains it cannot find evidence of an oil spill, the municipality stopped water intake at the Fort Chipewyan Water Treatment Facility as a precautionary measure on Sunday.
Deranger said while the petrochemical sheen may be natural, it is an unprecedented, “man-made natural disaster” caused by a combination of extremely high water levels, hot temperatures and torrential downpours.
“This has never before been seen by land-users in the region,” she said. “Even if it’s natural, it is still an indication that climate change, which has been exacerbated by the cumulative impacts of the development in the region, is leading to irreparable harm to not just the environment but the ability of the people in the region to continue practicing their treaty rights.”
Adam called the timing of the alleged spill, which fell on the day of the Healing Walk, “tragically ironic.”
“This spill is one of the number of reasons why we walk and is an oily reminder of Alberta’s growing pipeline and tar sands problem,” he said. “The Alberta government needs to address these problems. Ignoring them doesn’t make them go away.”
Hundreds of elders, youth, indigenous leaders and allies marched along the busy highway Saturday afternoon, past tailings ponds, upgraders, base camps, mined sections of land and reclamation areas, offering prayers for the land and Creator in all four directions, with the ongoing leak a constant reminder of the purpose of the gathering that brought people in from across the continent.
“This is why we’re all here,” Deranger said. “To stop this type of stuff from happening. It’s absolutely imperative that we all come together and really pray for the healing of the land.”
Marchers blame oil for series of recent tragedies
It was not the only tragic incident of the day to get attention from the marchers. Another spill, discovered last Thursday, was also reported by Crystal Lameman of the Beaver Lake Cree, whose First Nation recently embarked on what could be a precedent-setting court case against the oilsands industry founded upon treaty rights.
“We actually got a report that there was a toxic tar sands emulsion leaking into watersheds of our traditional hunting territory. We’ve been further notified that the cleanup crew’s out there. It’s not a pipeline spill; it’s an oil spill of some sort using the CSS extraction process, and they’re actually up to their knees in this emulsion,” she said.
Lameman said it was “no coincidence” that the majority of last month’s flooding in southern Alberta hit Calgary, where the major oil companies’ headquarters are stationed.
“Industry: wake up, you’re being sent a message,” she said. “That’s our mother, she’s crying.”
The walk was also prefaced by news of the shocking explosions in Lac-Megantic, Que. caused when crude oil a train was carrying caught fire and resulted in five reported fatalities and 40 other people still missing as of Monday afternoon, which had people pointing fingers again at the safety record of oil transportation systems.
Other speakers at the Healing Walk event, including 350.org founder Bill McKibben and author Naomi Klein, tied development of the oilsands to global climate change and interpreted devastating natural disasters, including flooding in India that recently claimed the lives of thousands and wildfires in Arizona that took the lives of 19 firefighters, as warnings the extreme could become the norm if more bitumen is extracted from Alberta’s soil.
“There are five or six deposits of carbon around the world that are big enough that if you dig it up and burn it, there’s no way we’re ever going to be able to bring our climate under control, and this is one of them,” McKibben said. “What happens here will determine what will happen for generations and generations to come…It would be game over for the climate.”
Though organizers say the event – attracting a record number of participants this year – is not a protest against development, Adam said it is a wakeup call for industry and government officials to “clean up” their existing messes.
“We cannot continue the destruction happening on our homeland without proper environmental and regulatory processes in place,” he said.
For another story from the healing walk, please click here.