The first mine opened when Jean L’Hommecourt was a young girl, an open pit where an oil company had begun digging in the sandy soil for a black, viscous form of crude called bitumen.
She and her family would pass the mine in their boat when they traveled up the Athabasca River, and the fumes from its processing plant would sting their eyes and burn their throats, despite the wet cloths their mother would drape over the children’s faces.
By the time L’Hommecourt was in her 30s, oil companies had leased most of the land where she and her mother went to gather berries from the forest on long summer days or hunt moose when the leaves turned yellow and the air crisp.
Today, that same land, near her Indigenous community of Fort McKay, is surrounded by mines that have swallowed an area larger than New York City, stripping away boreal forest and muskeg and rerouting waterways.
Oil and gas companies like ExxonMobil and the Canadian giant Suncor have transformed Alberta’s tar sands—also called oil sands—into one of the world’s largest industrial developments. They have built sprawling waste ponds that leach heavy metals into groundwater, and processing plants that spew nitrogen and sulfur oxides into the air, sending a sour stench for miles. [Continue reading…]