The Future of Energy
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Scenes From the Tar Wars

As Canada scrambles to dig up some of the world's dirtiest oil, a bush doctor tracks mysterious diseases, poisoned rivers, and shattered lives.

On a chilly autumn evening, Ida Stepanowich finishes a 12-hour shift at the Suncor mine 15 miles north of Fort McMurray and stops to pick up her 15-year-old son from his after-school job at a video store. He climbs into the back of her extended-cab pickup clutching a copy of Night of the Living Dead. Inside her home on the sprawling edge of town, she walks past a living room that resembles a page from an Ikea catalog and sits down in her pearl-white kitchen.

Stepanowich, Raymond Ladouceur's 48-year-old sister, grew up with her 10 siblings in a cabin on the Athabasca River, splitting firewood, hauling water, and eating only what they could grow and catch. "The way Raymond lives today, we wouldn't be able to live like that," she tells me in the soft tones of a yoga instructor. "My grandma used to say in Cree that money would mean a lot one day. It would mean everything to the world. And that's so true."

The influx of fortune seekers and roughnecks has transformed Fort McMurray into a place that longtime residents barely recognize. Gone are the days when one might see caribou from the back yard. The town has doubled in size over the past decade to more than 64,000 people. With a median single-family home price of $550,000, it's now among the highest-priced towns in Canada. (The average two-story home price in Toronto is $485,000.) It sports a full-service casino, restaurants with names like Fuel, an Oil Sands Discovery Centre for tourists, and a new nickname: McMoney. Inexperienced truck drivers can earn $100,000 a year in the tar sands, welders twice that. On the only road leading into town, known as the "Highway of Death," oversize rigs are passed on blind curves by workers flush with cash and booze.

Stepanowich moved to Fort McMurray in 2000, seeking better schools for her two children. For six years her husband has piloted a crane at the Syncrude mine and she's driven dozers, graders, haulers, and tankers. Although she bought a home and banked a college fund, Stepanowich wonders if the jobs have been worth it. "When I work out there," she whispers, "I always say, 'Grandmothers, forgive us for destroying your Earth.' I don't say that out loud to people I work with—they'll probably think that I'm crazy. But if I have tobacco, I'll sprinkle a little bit along the way someplace and ask for forgiveness."

Earlier that day, across the street from the Boomtown Casino, I eat breakfast with Georgette Adam, another tar sands worker from Fort Chip. She's just finished a shift driving a 3,369-horsepower Caterpillar 797B for Suncor. The 400-ton-capacity truck is the largest in the world, and Adam describes driving it as a bit like steering an apartment building. Riding in the Godzilla of monster trucks has its risks, such as blowing a tire ("It can kill anybody beside it"), leaking transmission fluid ("It's not like a little bucket; it's huge"), and breaking one of the cooling hoses ("That's it; they blow up"). It can squash pickups like tin cans, she gushes.

Adam does not share Stepanowich's concerns about pollution, but she's familiar with the dark side of the boom. In 1998, she convinced her older sister Chipsy to get a job in the mines. The two sisters lived together in a barracks-style camp that housed 40 men for every woman. Eager suitors came to the sisters' rooms with gifts such as a boom box and a disco ball and swarmed them in the camp cafeteria.

"Dudes hit on you every day," Chipsy later recalls. She took up with a boyfriend who agreed to take her to the airport to meet his family. There, the boyfriend was met in the terminal by a young woman with children. "Is that your sister?" Chipsy asked, but the look on the woman's face told her the answer; she took a taxi home in tears. Later, the boyfriend lamely claimed he'd "just wanted a fresh start."

Chipsy drowned her sorrows in the bars. On "Thirsty Thursday," mine workers cashed their paychecks at a strip club and hit the Oil Can or Diggers for beers. Friends introduced Chipsy to cocaine, the camp's drug of choice because it's difficult to detect in random drug tests. She guesses that three-quarters of tar sands workers use it regularly. (Fort McMurray's rate of cocaine-related incidents is three times Toronto's.) People lost their jobs, she says, but "then you just get a job with another mine."

The strain and temptation eventually convinced Chipsy to move back to Fort Chipewyan. One day not long after her return, her brother ferried her to a bush camp, where elders invited her into a cabin of logs and moss and fed her warm fish, dried moose, and lard-fried bread called "kill me quick." A whole muskrat roasted in an oven. This was what she'd missed.

Those who stay in Fort McMurray often don't fare as well. Prostitution is rampant. The number of pages in the phone book devoted to escort services has reportedly gone from 1 to 10 in recent years. After I say goodbye to Georgette Adam, I pass a portly man and a woman having sex on a picnic table in front of the mayor's office. The town's homelessness rate, driven by the exorbitant housing costs, is the worst in Alberta. In the last three winters, 12 people froze to death on the streets.

The boom has also hit the town's only hospital hard. Even as the population swelled, the number of doctors working at the Northern Lights Regional Health Centre has declined. Emergency room doctors may see upward of 150 patients a day. John O'Connor says he often worked 80-hour weeks, serving as head of family medicine, coroner, and designated physician for the Mounties. "I tell people who care to listen, 'If you get sick in Fort McMurray, leave,'" he says. "We are drowning in patients. We can't cope at all." In a letter to a Nova Scotia newspaper in December 2006, he discouraged newcomers from heading to the tar sands. "I cannot count the number of nurses who express the sentiment that, having been recruited here, they feel they have been duped! Quality of life here is extremely low." He concluded, "Despite our expressed concerns, we are ignored."

Eventually, people in high places started paying attention to O'Connor, but not in the way he'd hoped.

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