Commentary: A protester details the Alberta Tar Sands devastation
Following is a statement read by Grace Pettygrove, as she and three other megaload protesters were sentenced for disorderly conduct in Grant County Justice Court last week. An article on the sentencing is published in this week’s Eagle and in Local News on the website.
By Grace Pettygrove
For the Blue Mountain Eagle
Hi, my name is Grace Pettygrove. I live in Coos Bay, where I volunteer for a conservation organization and work as a server at a restaurant. On December 16 of last year, I was part of a highway protest that temporarily halted a 901,000-pound “megaload” shipment as it headed through Eastern Oregon. The shipment was transporting oversized equipment to be used in General Electric’s tar sands mining operation in Alberta.
Tar sands are a combination of clay, sand, water, and bitumen, a heavy black viscous oil. Bitumen is extracted from the tar sands, and then refined into oil. The bitumen in tar sands cannot be pumped from the ground in its natural state, so oil companies must use open pit mining to dig up the sands from underneath the surface of the land. In the boglands of Alberta, tar sands extraction means clearing all of the trees, draining the bogland, and then removing all of the underlying clay, silt and gravel.
For those who have never heard of the Alberta Tar Sands, it is hard to accurately represent the devastation there without photos – but essentially extraction of Tar Sands in Alberta has turned nearly 177,000 acres of peat bog and boreal forest into an open pit mine. In total, over a million acres have been leased for oil sands extraction, and there are over 3.5 million acres that could be leased. For comparison, imagine that several of Oregon’s vast national forests were dedicated solely to oil extraction – and that after extraction those lands would be left as tree-less, muddy pits unsafe for humans or animals to live on.
In an environmental impact statement, the U.S. Bureau of Land Management states that it takes over two tons of bitumen and several barrels of water to produce a single barrel of oil. Over 80 percent of the water used in Tar Sands mining comes from the Athabasca River. Most of the water – over 95 percent – cannot be returned to the watershed it comes from. Instead, companies are required to put the now toxic water in vast tailings ponds, large enough to be seen from space. Infamously, 1n 2008, 1,600 migratory birds died in one day landing on a Syncrude tailings pond in Alberta.
Downstream from the tar sands mining, first nations communities living on the Athabasca River have experienced increased rates of certain cancers linked to the consumption of fish from water that is increasingly polluted by nearby tailings ponds. In Fort Chipewyan, for example, the agency Alberta Health has reported a 30 percent increase in cancer among community members.
The U.S. is the biggest consumer of Alberta Tar Sands petroleum. In a way are all responsible for the devastation that is happening there. On a personal level, having heard first-hand accounts from people whose families are impacted by Tar Sands mining, I feel constantly frustrated that there isn’t more I can do to stop this blatant environmental and human rights violation. Throughout my adult life I have tried other things, like voting for politicians who said they would decrease our dependence on tar sands, or personally abstaining from driving cars or using plastic, but I find that such individual efforts go largely unnoticed by decision makers.
As the Omega Morgan shipping company came through Oregon, bound for Alberta with tar sands equipment, there was an opportunity for a larger movement of people to show solidarity with the people and animals living on the Athabasca River, and to oppose the ongoing devastation of land and climate. Members of the Umatilla, Nez Pierce and Warm Springs Tribes saw that their treaty rights were being disrespected by Oregon and Idaho Departments of Transportation, and also that the business of Omega Morgan was simply part of a larger business to destroy indigenous communities and land in Alberta. Activists from all across the Northwest stood with them, and dozens of people chose to put their bodies in the way of the megaloads.
Even disregarding the terrible impact of the oil sands industry on people living far north of here, the megaload transport of tar sands equipment on our rural highways provides little to no benefit to our communities at a great risk to public safety. Despite promises made by Omega Morgan and the Oregon Department of Transportation, in the days leading up to my arrest I personally witnessed the megaloads impeding traffic and blocking busy overpasses and intersections during a time when inclement weather would make emergency vehicle passage rather important. As you may already know, the equipment that Omega Morgan was transporting effectively takes up two whole lanes, completely blocking traffic on most rural highways while the load is moving.
While the people who oppose the ongoing devastation in Alberta are sometimes viewed as “radicals” who are disrupting every day business, it is important to note that tar sands mining – and all affiliated industry, from oil trains to pipelines to megaload transport – are not normal businesses serving the needs of local people. The companies involved in these operations are asking people all over this continent to give up everything – our safety, our clean water, the land we were raised on – for their own profit.
For all of these reasons, I chose to put my body in the way of the tar sands equipment as it traveled through Eastern Oregon. I didn’t take the decision lightly, and I understand that there are consequences to the way I express my political perspective. Yet, with the injustices that exist surrounding this issue, doing nothing doesn’t feel like an option.