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The Reality of the Heartland

Despite a relentless rainfall that continued throughout the day, more than 80 Edmonton-area residents, activsts, community leaders and media piled on to a pair of yellow school buses on a bleak and wet May 29 morning to take part in the Heartland Reality Tour.

Organized jointly by the local residents’ group Citizens for Responsible Development, the Council of Canadians, Sierra Club Prairie and Greenpeace, the tour took participants on a four-hour trip through the Industrial Heartland, a 582-square-kilometre area 50 kilometres northeast of Edmonton which encompasses the City of Fort Saskatchewan, the Counties of Lamont, Strathcona and Sturgeon, in addition to 49 square kilometres of the City of Edmonton.

Home to more than 40 companies involved in the production and processing of oil, gas, and a range of petrochemical products, the area is one of the most polluted areas of the province. The government may call it Upgrader Alley, but residents increasingly know it as Cancer Alley.

While most Albertans associate the impacts of the tar sands — including the destruction of broad swaths of land, contaminated rivers and rising cancer and respiratory disease rates — with northern Alberta communities such as Fort MacMurray and Fort Chipewyan, tour participants learned that the chain of destruction extends right into Edmonton’s backyard.

Shell’s Scotfor upgrader in the Industrial Heartland

Already home to Shell’s Scotford upgrader, as many as eight more upgraders, designed to turn the bitumen of the tar sands into synthetic crude oil, may be built over the next decade. More than 14 industrial projects are either seeking approval or have been approved for the area. Amongst these projects, five bitumen upgraders have already received approval, and and on June 1 the Energy Resources Conservation Board will begin hearings on French oil giant Total’s application to build an upgrader in the area.

According to a Pembina Institute report, if all nine projects and expansions go ahead as planned — many were halted in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis, but can be restarted at any time — they will:

  • process about 2 million barrels of bitumen a day
  • consume about 10 times as much water as the City of Edmonton
  • require twice as much natural gas as all the households in Edmonton
  • use more electricity than is produced by the entire EPCOR Genesee operation
  • produce about one sixth of Alberta’s greenhouse gases

They will also release tonnes of sulphur dioxide and nitrogen oxides and create fine particulate matter and ground level ozone. They will also consume huge amounts of water — the smallest volume of water an upgrader will use is about five billion litres per year and several require two to four times that amount — and pave over some of the most productive agricultural land in the province.

Local farmer Wayne Groot tells tour participants about life in the Heartland.

For resident farmers like Wayne Groot and Gordon Visser, two of the local guides on the tour, the development has already had a major impact on their lives. Wayne showed participants how his 4000-acre potato farm is now surrounded by land owned by oil companies.

The Groot family farm, one of the last remaining in the area, surrounded by industrial development.

Compelled by above-market buyouts or scared away by cancers and other health concerns, many of Groot’s former neighbours have fled the area, a fact in evidence as Wayne spoke of the number of families who have left in recent years as the bus drove by abandoned house after abandoned house.

Local farmer Wayne Groot talks to media as part of the Heatland Reality Tour.

The two other local guides on the tour, Barb Collier and Anne Brown, have been fighting new development in the area for a decade. They spoke of inadequate monitoring and testing of air quality, and the stress and fear of families who at a moment’s notice of a release from one of the plants located just kilometres from their door may have to flee the area or respect a “stay in place” warning, in which they have to seal the windows and doors of the house and may have to seal themselves in one room and line the crack of the door with a wet towel.

Both spoke about the impact that fighting such rampant development has had on families in the area: long nights of research and meetings with fellow residents and lawyers, participating in bucket brigade testing of air quality, the time and stress of attending approval hearings, stories of harassment by company officials.

This last point was especially driven home for participants of the tour. When the two buses pulled over on a public road to allow participants to get out to take pictures of Shell’s Scotford updgrader first one, then two, then four, then six company security vans pulled up and surrounded the buses. Some parked at each turnoff while two more came close and pulled over on the side of the road where the buses were parked. When the buses began moving again, a pair of the trucks followed the buses for many kilometres, stopping when the buses stopped to point out another abandoned farm or another area which has been bought up by oil companies and approved for development.

One of six of Shell’s security trucks that surrounded the tour buses on a public road keep a close eye on media.

Like the pipelines and tanker ports being constructed across the continent, the plans for upgraders in the Industrial Heartland are key infrastructure to allow for rampant expansion of the Alberta tar sands, development the climate and downstream communities can ill afford. As in downstream communities like Fort Chipewyan, the stories and sites of the tour showed that the Industrial Heartland has been all but declared a sacrifice zone for tar sands expansion.

Hearing the stories of Anne, Wayne, Barb and Gordon, the need to build a green, sustainable and just energy future became all the more real. Step one is to stop the approval of the Total upgrader when hearings begin on June 1.