Monday, November 2, 2009

Crime and Justice, in Canada’s Tar Sands

Crime and Justice, in Canada’s Tar Sands
By Jeremy Williams
Freelance photographer, arrested on the Athabasca River along with 20 Greenpeace activists at the Suncor Facility north of Fort McMurray, Alberta on September 30th, 2009

“Can you get on a plane today?” was the key question in my discussion with Jessica Wilson, from Greenpeace Canada, “We need a photographer for tomorrow’s action…” I accepted with a mix of excitement and apprehension.
“There is a good chance you could be arrested…” she added.
I was aware of that risk, but saw this as an opportunity to learn more about the Tar Sands, to see them up close and then share my first hand knowledge of what I consider to be a crime against the planet and future generations.
Alberta’s tar sands produce the dirtiest oil on earth and release massive amounts of CO2 emissions - just in the production process alone! The process includes clear cutting Boreal Forest, strip mining the bitumen (tar sand), and dumping 1.8 billion litres of polluted water into tailing ponds every day. These tailing ponds release toxins such as naphthenic acids, trace metals, and ammonia into the environment. A report entitled “11 Million Litres a Day: The Tar Sands’ Leaking Legacy,” released in December of 2008 by Environmental Defence suggests that 11 million litres of contaminated water leak from tailings ponds every day. The report also estimates that over four billion litres of tailings-contaminated water enters groundwater every year. If proposed projects continue, this number would top 25 billion litres per year within a decade.
Descending into Ft. McMurray that night was like being cast into hell. Out of the darkness appeared an evil glow, massive flames spewed dark clouds reflecting orange light that pulsated like a breathing beast on fire. Below me streetlights, highways, subdivisions and vehicles were clustered like a glowing beehive.
Surely the corporate executives fly in on private leer jets, if at all, because the passengers on board this flight were all middle-class men and women from small town Canada, with no or little retirement savings, coming to work in the oil industry.
Nick-named “Fort McMoney”, this town has the feel of a modern gold rush town. But instead of horse drawn carriages, it’s now one tonne trucks and shiny new SUVs. The best and worst of society can be found here: Canadian Heritage, hope, despair, drugs, prostitution, greed, gluttony, suicide.
At midnight I was picked up by a hot shot photographer from Greenpeace International. He gave me some bare bones info on what to expect in a few short hours. He showed me aerial photos of the Suncor facility on the Athabasca River that I would be paddling through in the morning. The scale and feel of such a monstrous industrial operation hardly comes through in a photograph…
I laid down on a couch at 2am hoping to catch one good hour of sleep before a chaotic day was to unfold.

3am. September 30th, we got up, dressed and went into the cold dark night. We climbed into a car and drove out into the flat country of northern Alberta. Ironically, we met up with several other vehicles at a gas station. As the engines started, the adrenaline began to flow. We were running late, at least an hour behind. The highway was a zoo. The morning rush had begun. Vehicles, like frenzied blood vessels, raced down arteries towards the heart of the beast. We were on the highway to hell.
We pulled over onto the side of the blacktop, there were at least 6 cars and trucks in our caravan. We grabbed our gear and ran off into the forest as quickly as possible.
We marched single file into the darkness, without a word. A rough trail led a couple kilometers through dense bush down to the bank of the Athabasca River. The sky was beginning to glow, not just from the gas flares, but with twilight. Faces were now recognizable. We were a global community with accents from Germany, England, Brazil, France, Australia and all over Canada. Because Alberta’s tar sands are the largest capital investment and energy project on the planet, stopping it requires global action.
After a bit of chaos and confusion with gear, we loaded onto canoes and zodiacs and we began our paddle down the river. Team One was away, the rest of us were delayed. I got into what appeared to be a sturdy inflatable zodiac and began a slow paddle downstream. For a short while it was a pleasant journey. The boreal forest was painted in autumn colors. The air was fresh, clean, tranquil and quiet. This was the calm before the storm.
The silence was broken by the horrific bang of propane canons exploding every few seconds like gunfire. We were entering a war zone. This was a war on nature. I was told the canons are used in an attempt to scare away birds from the toxic tailing ponds all around us. Miles of wasteland. It was barren, deadly. Then a toxic brew filled our lungs, the putrid smell of tar. We rounded a corner and the “upgrading facility” came into site. This gigantic industrial machine had dozens of smoke stacks with flames flaring into the sky, burning “excess” natural gases, wasting massive amounts of energy and heating up the planet! The bituminous sands industry reported emissions of 28.5 megatonnes (million tonnes) of CO2eq in 2004, 35.8 megatonnes of CO2eq in 2007, and have been projected to be 113.1-141.6 megatonnes CO2eq in 20202 .
Team One was in position. They had paddled ahead, scrambled up the eastern shore and chained themselves to the conveyor belts in the mine. We were glad to hear the news, but our cover was blown. Now Suncor’s security force was awaiting us, trucks were swarming the banks of the river and we were still a kilometer away from the bridge.
A Suncor jet boat was on us like a hungry vulture following a weary animal. So much for sneaking in under the cover of darkness…
We were now under the surveillance of twenty odd Suncor employees who were anything but polite, indeed they were very rude until a handful of RCMP officers arrived on the scene. Meanwhile, Bruce Cox, the Executive Director for Greenpeace Canada, was juggling three cell phones that were constantly ringing. He and Jessica were being interviewed live on radio stations across the globe. My photos were uploaded via laptop computer to an FTP site for global distribution, and several activists were streaming video their cellular phones. The action was proving effective.
The last boat to join the raft of canoes, kayaks and zodiacs under the bridge had brought along the floating banner. Prepared for swimming in a deep river, several activists wore dry suits, but the water was only waist deep making for an easy deployment of the sixty-foot banner that read “Dying for climate leadership”. Many people in First Nations communities downstream, including the Chipewyan, are dependent on fishing in the river for subsistence and are literally dying from rare cancers linked to the toxins that the tar sands leach into the river. Eleven million litres every day!
In 2007, a study by Dr. Kevin Timoney, conducted on the on behalf of the Fort Chipewyan health authority 3, revealed high levels of arsenic, aluminum, chromium, cobalt, copper, iron, led, phosphorous, selenium, titanium, and phenols in the Athatbasca River. High levels of arsenic, cadmium, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAH’s) and resin acids were found in the sediment, as well as high levels of mercury in fish. Most disturbing are the arsenic, PAH’s and mercury which are linked to cancer, and other deadly diseases. Perhaps the RCMP did not know this? If they did, would they still be coming after us?
Part of the original plan was to blockade the bridge, but that was clearly no longer possible, so after the helicopter had flown over with a photographer and a videographer on board to capture the aerial shots, we decided to call it a day. We began paddling downstream in what became the slowest police chase ever, at least on the Athabasca River.
An hour and a half later, we had only traveled 3 kilometers and our leaking zodiac was taking on water. We stopped to rest on the eastern shore of the river. Other protestors joined us and before we knew it, the RCMP were on board the Suncor jet boat and heading our way. They called out from the boat, “You are trespassing on Suncor’s property, if you do not get back into your boats, you will be charged with trespassing…”
The boat approached the shore as we began climbing back into our zodiacs.
Four constables and a dog charged us “You’re under arrest for mischief,” I heard one of the officers yell. They grabbed some of the protestors roughly and pulled them back onto shore in the shallow water. I climbed into my zodiac with Pascale, a videographer, and we paddled out a few yards. I grabbed her video camera and began filming the scene.
“You are all now officially under arrest for mischief, if you do not return to shore and surrender yourselves you will face a second charge of obstruction of justice,” one officer yelled from the shore. Neither Pascale nor I liked the idea of facing either of these charges and so we reluctantly paddled back to shore. The other boat had paddled farther away and did not hear the discussion.
By this time everyone was cuffed and sitting down. My bladder felt like it was going to burst. “Excuse me officer, can I water a bush?” I asked.
“If you do, you will be facing another charge under the Environmental Protection Act,” Was his cold reply.
I gasped, “You’re joking! These guys (pointing upstream to the Suncor facility) dump 1 million liters of toxins into the river every day, and you’re gonna charge me, under the Environmental Protection Act, for pissing in the bush…?”
There was no reply, but a general feeling of anger pervaded our group. If this is not collusion, I do not know what is; A complete perversion of justice. “To serve and protect capitalism,” I thought to myself.
As we were loaded into Suncor’s boat, Bruce Cox asked the officer “Don’t you think it’s dangerous to take us onto the water with our hands cuffed behind our backs?”
“You’re wearing a life jacket,” was his response.
Bruce’s personal flotation device was not done up and would not have saved him, had he fallen in.
On the western shore of the river a crowd had gathered. There were now a few more police officers and some bystanders, clearly Suncor employees, because if they weren’t, they too were trespassing. One woman was taking photos of us.
“Officer, are you going to arrest that woman for taking photos too, that’s all I did…” I was not happy that the Suncor employees were given special treatment, clearly there was a different set of rules for them.
An hour later, the third boat was seized and three more activists were taken into custody. We then waited two hours for a van to show up, some of us were lucky enough to wait in the back of the police car and get warmed up as we waited. I was soaked, chilled to the bone and shivering. Warming up in the car helped with the bladder situation too.
Jessica still had her cell phone and took several calls from the media. I was wishing I could have photographed the scene. For the most part the police officers were polite and courteous towards us, granted we had done nothing wrong and did not deserve to be under arrest.
As we drove across Suncor’s facility, Bruce Cox was on his cellular phone, being interviewed by the media. Other people’s cell phones were streaming video on the worldwide web. When we arrived at the site of the conveyor belt lock down, the police went into a company office where Suncor employees must have shown them the Greenpeace website, because they knew someone had been streaming video from the van and were very upset with us. We were searched, groped and stripped of cell phones.
I was aghast, never before had I seen such a disaster zone. The land was dead, carved up, chewed and spat out. Pipes carried the toxins and released them into the air, the water and into tailing ponds, which surrounded us as far as the eye could see- black pools of polluted water by the millions of gallons… Tailing ponds already cover 50 square kilometers of Alberta’s former boreal forest. These man-made tailings ponds are gigantic dams and “If any of these tailings ponds ever burst the world would forever forget about the Exxon Valdez, States Water ecologist Dr. David Schindler. Syncrude’s Southwest Sand Storage (SWSS) Facility is one of the largest dams on Earth, outsized only by China’s Three Gorges dam.
I was witnessing a real crime, a dead zone, a festering wound that would continue to pollute the planet with toxins for centuries! Yet Greenpeace was being dubbed the criminal, and our “justice system” was protecting the real offenders! The air was dense and acidic. My heart was heavy with the sight of this menace, this machine eating away at the earth, wreaking havoc on the sky above, releasing a deadly concoction of chemicals into the air that would spell poison for generations to come…
At six o’clock that evening ten of us were taken to the local RCMP detachment and locked up. We were searched again and papers were signed for the confiscation of our materials. For six hours seven men were crowded into one small cell; we were refused phone calls, and refused blankets and food. My clothes were still wet and I could not fall asleep on the cold concrete. The volunteers who had chained themselves to the conveyor belts were brought in an hour or two later. There was twenty-one of us in total.
Finally, we were brought out one by one to answer a few questions, phone our lawyers, and then placed into different cells with fewer prisoners. Originally, we thought we’d be released that night, but we waited as a drunk driver came and went. Someone wanted us to suffer, while the real criminals went freely about their business.
I was put into a cell with two other guys and only one blanket. Luckily for me, my cell mates, Tavis (from Calgary) and Johannes (from Germany), were friendly enough to share the blanket. We finally slept for a couple hours, but it proved difficult with the bright lights shining in my eyes.
Sixteen hours later, we were finally given our first meal: one waffle and one coffee each. We pleaded, vainly, for more food. We assumed that by nine in the morning we would see a justice of the peace and be released. But lunch came, then dinner was served - but justice was not. Why were we held so long? Who was calling the shots?
I later read about how the Premier, Ed Stelmach might have had a role in our punishment.

Finally, at eleven forty-five pm, thirty-two hours later, I was the last prisoner released. We all had to sign a recognizance form, which included these conditions;

Outside, we were greeted with hugs and food from strangers, and friends. We were free - free to leave the area immediately, or face arrest. So much for a “free country”…

I fled for Edmonton a few hours later, thirsty for hope, hungry for justice.
I had witnessed an abominable crime. I had lost what little faith I had in my government. I was charged with a criminal offence, but was not sure what crime I had committed.
I headed for home in BC to rest and reflect on crime and justice in Alberta’s Tar Sands. Greenpeace occupied another facility in Fort Saskatchewan, Alberta, where 16 more people were arrested. This was their third action in three weeks!
The Premier of Alberta, Ed Stelmach decided to mix politics with justice and declared, "We're going to be working very closely with industry and our solicitor general will be reviewing all of the guidelines we have in place and will be reporting back to me."
"In 30 years of defending individuals and corporations in this province, never before have I seen such political interference in a case that's presently before the courts," stated lawyer Brian Beresh who is representing Greenpeace and those arrested.
The Solicitor General Fred Lindsay suggested protestors (“protectors” sounds better to me), could be tried under anti-terrorism laws.
“What he said is that it may be time for us to look at these people as more than just protesters… He wants to make sure justice is served and they’re prosecuted fully under the appropriate Alberta laws,” states Sharon Lopatka, spokeswoman for the solicitor general’s office.
My Lawyer Brian Beresh says it best, "… that's exactly what Joe McCarthy did when he spoke about the communists… in the United States, and it was fear-mongering at its highest." Beresh also stated, “Such comments incite hatred toward activists and foment discontent within the public about people who are exercising constitutional rights. It is highly irresponsible for a solicitor general to make those comments publicly…”
Now I was beginning to understand why I got such Royal treatment in Alberta.
"It caused me to wonder whether or not the premier's comments had that immediate an effect," states Beresh, citing the charges against the activists have been escalating. There were no charges filed after the first protest on September 15 at Shell's Muskeg River oilsands mine. But mischief charges were laid on September 30 at Suncor's upgrader near Fort McMurray – where I was arrested, despite Suncor's declaration it wouldn't seek legal remedy. Break-and-enter charges were laid after the third demonstration in Fort Saskatchewan.
As of October 14th, Suncor filed a lawsuit against Greenpeace for $1.5 million dollars it claims to have lost during the occupation on September 30th. The real cost of cleaning up such a toxic wasteland, a polluted watershed and chaotic climate will be paid by our children’s children, and I doubt justice will ever be served in Alberta’s Tar Sands, the most destructive project on earth.

© Copyright Jeremy Williams (

1.) 11 Million Litres a day: the tar sands’ leaking legacy
2.) Bitumen and Biocarbon
3.) A study of water and sediment quality as related to public health issues,
Fort Chipwewyan, Alberta

The crime scene: a few frightening facts about the Tar sands,

-According to A new research paper, Bitumen and Biocarbon, by Global Forest Watch Canada, as of June 1, 2009, 68,574 hectares of boreal forest and peatlands had been cleared for oil sands surface mining releasing 77 megatonnes of CO2 . If the total area of natural ecosystems that are planned for removal by oil sands extraction over the next 100 years are “developed” (1,613,887 hectares - 20 times the size of the City of Calgary), 873 megatonnes of CO2 would be emitted into the atmosphere, from deforestation alone.

-2-5 barrels of fresh water are used to produce one barrel of oil. Tar sands operations are draining the Peace-Athabasca Delta, which is the collector of more than 1/6 of Canada's fresh watersheds.

(From Bitumen and Biocarbon) Although not all of the biological carbon contained within ecosystems changed by bitumen industrial activities will be emitted into the atmosphere, if all of this carbon (578.9 megatonnes) were emitted, this would amount to 2,121.3 megatonnes of CO2.
While this scenario is unrealistic, it nevertheless highlights the significance of potential greenhouse gas emissions from the release of biological carbon stores from those natural ecosystems that will be changed by a full development scenario of the bituminous sands. Our likely estimate of releases under a full development scenario would be 238.3 megatonnes of carbon, 873.4 megatonnes of CO2, or 41.1% of the total carbon contained in the area disturbed by bitumen industrial operations. Over 100 years, this would average out to 8.7 megatonnes CO2 per year, with great variability year-to-year and decade-to-decade. Although reclamation will sequester carbon from the atmosphere, it is unlikely to replace most of the lost biocarbon for thousands of years. Canada’s total emissions for 2007 were 747 megatonnes CO2eq from all sources and Canada’s Kyoto
target is 558.4 megatonnes.

Tax payers:
The Canadian and Alberta governments have announced they would give $865 million tax payers’ dollars to help Royal Dutch Shell build carbon capture and storage facilities for their operations in Alberta's oil sands. Canada is coughing up $120 million from its $1 billion “Clean Energy Fund”, and Alberta is donating $745 million out of a $2 billion carbon capture and storage fund.

"We are creating an environmental catastrophe that will take centuries to recover from…if we recover at all." ~ David Suzuki

"There is no minister of the environment on Earth who can stop this (oil sands development) from going forward, because there is too much money in it." ~ former Environment Minister Stéphane Dion



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