In late June, a team of RAN staff travelled to Fort McMurray in Alberta, Canada to participate in the Tar Sands Healing Walk, which is organized and hosted by members of the local First Nations Communities. Walking amidst the tar sands destruction was a humbling and powerful experience.
This blog post is one of a series, sharing our impressions and reflections.
Todd's previous post was "Industry's Dreams, Indigenous Nightmares: A Visit to the Alberta Tar Sands".
We left the tar sands boomtown of Fort McMurray via Highway 63, a notoriously dangerous road we were warned was trafficked by huge trucks hauling mining machinery and by oil workers cutting loose on their time off. Fortunately, we traveled the short distance to the Tar Sands Healing Walk camp without incident. We joined the healing walk encampment, a collection of tents and teepees along the beautiful Gregoire Lake, and were hosted by Keepers of the Athabasca, a network of Indigenous First Nations groups.
The natural beauty of Alberta is striking, and deceptive. At first glance, the land looks unspoiled, with thick stands of white-barked birch, a big sky, and the placid waters of Gregoire Lake. Tragically, the idyllic façade belies profound contamination: the air, waters, animals, and people of Alberta are poisoned. This reality was quickly hammered home in the Tars Sands Healing Walk camp. Drinking water for the gathering of several hundred had been pumped from a residence at nearby Fort Chipewyan, and the water reeked of methane gas. Apparently, some of the well-intentioned visitors in attendance helpfully pointed this out to the community hosts, prompting a sobering announcement from the stage: "People are complaining about the water smelling of methane. This is what people drink here. There is no other water." Later the same day, Annette Campre from Fort McKay First Nation told the crowd that she has been using bottled water to bathe her children for years. The Athabasca River flows north through the tar sands mines, carrying contaminants away from major population centers and toward Fort Chipewyan, a community of Chipewyan, Cree, and Metis First Nations people. One suspects that the intense water contamination visited on Fort Chipewyan would not be permitted if the river of pollutants flowed south from the tar sands into the Canadian cities of Edmonton and Calgary.
The consequences of tar sands mining contaminants are disproportionately borne by First Nations communities, like Fort Chipewyan, a tiny town with a hugely anomalous incidence of rare and aggressive cancers, like bile-duct cancer. At the Tar Sands Healing Walk encampment, we heard from Dr. John O’Connor, the fly-in doctor for Fort Chipewyan and early whistleblower on the abnormally high incidence of cancers in the region. Dr. O’Connor recounted efforts by industry and government to discredit his first-hand observances, which have been borne out in a recent study that found that 21.3% of surveyed First Nations persons displayed evidence of cancer. The study also reported "that cancer occurrence is significantly and positively associated with participant employment in the Oil Sands as well as the consumption of traditional foods and locally caught fish."
The cancer epidemic faced by First Nations communities in the Alberta Tar Sands region are appalling, but the damage inflicted by tar sands mining on Canada's original people goes deeper. The same recent study documented "elevated levels of the environmental contaminants arsenic, cadmium, mercury and selenium, as well as PAHs (some carcinogenic) in the foods traditionally harvested by the First Nations in the region." Translation: the game that Indigenous people rely on in Alberta is ridden with toxins. For First Nations people, this has much deeper implications than the simple right to uncontaminated food stocks. As I learned at the Tar Sands Healing Walk, many of the important ceremonial and spiritual practices of Alberta's First Nations rely on traditional relationships with game, including hunting and the consumption of this meat. Tar sands developments threaten local species like the caribou with extinction, and are poisoning fish and game stocks. For First Nations communities, the contamination and degradation of the land is an existential threat; if First Nations people are unable to pass on traditional knowledge and practice, their culture and spiritual practice is destroyed. As we learned at the Tars Sands Healing Walk, the continued development of the Albertan tar sands is a perpetuation of cultural genocide by settler culture.
So what is to be done about this? Tune in next week for a final post—“Resistance: what do we do about the tar sands?”
Image: Chipewyan drummers lead the Tar Sands Healing walk. The Chipewyan culture is directly threatened by tar sands mining.
This blog post has been updated.
This month, Rainforest Action Network and three allies testified at Bank of America's annual shareholder meeting, urging them to drop coal, to stop profiting from environmental destruction and human rights abuses. We're posting the statements of our three allies. Add your voice by telling Bank of America to stop funding coal—and come clean on climate change.
My name is Santiago Piñeros. I was born in Bogotá, Colombia, and I work with Pensamiento y Acción Social (Thought and Social Action), an NGO that assists communities affected by large-scale mining in the center of the Cesar region in Colombia. I have had the opportunity to see how Drummond LTD operates in these areas, a multinational company in which Bank of America invests millions of dollars to develop its extractive coal and gas business.
Three towns located in the middle of the Cesar region—El Hatillo, community we assist, Plan Bonito, and Boquerón, communities we follow up—have to be resettled by Drummond, Glencore-Xstrata and a Goldman Sachs mining company. These resettlements were ordered by the Colombian government, due to the high levels of air pollution and dust from the coal mines. These communities should have been relocated two years ago because of the dangers that coal ash poses to people's health, including respiratory diseases, such as lung cancer, skin and ocular diseases. Thus, Drummond is currently co responsible for three involuntary resettlement processes due to air pollution in El Cesar Region.1 These communities must be resettled quickly, and Drummond's investors, including Bank of America, need to make sure this happens.
Drummond directly contaminates groundwater and rivers where these communities make their livelihoods.2 Activities such as fishing, hunting, territorial and cultural relations with the environment have deteriorated and are often no longer possible due to the contamination. For communities that rely on fishing and hunting for survival, the destruction of the environment means the destruction of the community.3 For these facts, the environmental damages in this region become a violation of the human rights of these communities and so creates an obligation for its investors—you—to commit to recognize the value of the human rights of these poor rural communities, communities that are threatened with simply disappearing. Bank of America has an obligation to protect these communities.
Bank of America invests today in a company that does not respect environmental standards. According to the environmental authorities Drummond recently spilled around 1,800 tons of coal into the Caribbean Sea off the coast of Colombia. This disaster happened because Drummond chose not to implement required changes to the system of directly loading coal at port, which would have prevented these accidents.4 Pollution levels at Drummond coal mines exceed the levels permitted by law in Colombia, and they are steadily increasing.5 The pollution is affecting human health. Still, Drummond only responds to sanctions if they impact the company's ability to export coal.
Bank of America finances Drummond's coal operation and so is co responsible for Drummond, a company that operates with no due diligence regarding human, economic and cultural rights. According to the most recent study of the Contraloría General, Drummond's operations, and thus Bank of America's investments, do not guarantee a healthy life and environment, these operations only make a profit from our natural resources.6 Who holds the accounts where these profits are stashed? Bank of America.
Are these environmental and human rights abuses something you recognize? What responsibility do you have for these events? Your money is being used to fund mining operations that do not represent social, environmental and economic benefits for the communities living in the surroundings of the mines. In fact, the levels of unsatisfied basic necessities in these communities increase as sanctions and fines while the resettlements do not seem to advance.
1. Resolution No. 9070 of 2010 and Resolution No. 1525 of 2010 from the Colombian Ministry of Environment, Housing and Development (MAVDT).
2. Contraloría General de la Nación. Minería en Colombia I: Derechos, políticas públicas y gobernanza. // Minería en Colombia II: Institucionalidad y territorio, paradojas y conflictos. 2013.
3. Resolution No. 54 of 2008 from the Defensoría del Pueblo de Colombia.
4. Resolution No. 0123 of 2013 and Resolution No. 001 of 2014 from the National Authority of Environmental Licenses (ANLA).
5. Resolution No. 9070 of 2010 and Resolution No. 1525 of 2010 from the Colombian Ministry of Environment, Housing and Development (MAVDT).
6. Contraloría General de la Nación. Minería en Colombia I: Derechos, políticas públicas y gobernanza. // Minería en Colombia II: Institucionalidad y territorio, paradojas y conflictos. 2013.
Last week, Rainforest Action Network and three allies testified at Bank of America's annual shareholder meeting, urging them to drop coal, to stop profiting from environmental destruction and human rights abuses. In the next two weeks, we'll be posting the statements of our three allies. Add your voice by telling Bank of America to stop funding coal -- and come clean on climate change.
My name is Elise Keaton. I am the Executive Director of the Keeper of the Mountains Foundation and I am from southern West Virginia. I currently live in Charleston, West Virginia. I am here today to ask you to please stop financing the destruction of our mountains, our water and my community.
On January 9 of this year, I came home from work, poured a big glass of water from my tap and drank it. As soon as I set my glass down I received a text message from my landlord stating, “Don’t drink the water! There has been a chemical leak!”
Over the next hours, I experienced acute symptoms from exposure to the coal-processing chemical 4-methylcyclohexane methanol (MCHM), including irritated eyes, nose and throat, nausea, and stomach cramps. If the spill had been immediately lethal, I thought, the authorities would have sounded the chemical valley alarms. So I monitored my symptoms and concluded that I did not need to go to the emergency room that night. I figured that the next day, we would know more about what had happened.
What we learned over the next week was that a Freedom Industries facility storing coal-processing chemicals leaked MCHM into the Elk River, contaminating the drinking water for 300,000 households. The first question a thinking human being should ask is, “Why are 300,000 households, spread across nine counties in a rural state like West Virginia on a single water source in the city of Charleston?”
The answer is: their local water sources have already been compromised by the mining industry. Their streams and springs have been destroyed or buried by mountaintop removal. Their wells have been compromised by blasting or polluted by coal slurry injections.
And instead of addressing the sources of this pollution, the political-industrial establishment in West Virginia decided that your quarterly profits were more important than clean water for our communities and they answered that loss of water by extending the municipal water source further and further out into those counties.
Four months later, we still lack access to guaranteed safe drinking water in West Virginia. Our esteemed congresspeople have insisted that they are drinking the water. But no public health official has declared the water safe to drink.
I am 34 years old and I am getting married this summer. I've waited a long time to start my family. Now, I have postponed my plans to have children indefinitely because no one can tell me the impact MCHM may have had on me and my reproductive ability.
I am here today to ask you to please stop financing the destruction of our mountains, our water and my community. The minuscule profits you received as a result of mountaintop removal mining are incomparable to the catastrophic damage caused by the practice. It is killing us.
More than 20 peer-reviewed health studies have shown that living near mountaintop removal sites is deadly for the people of Appalachia. Please stop financing the destruction of our mountains, our water and my community.
I will close with this: when you remove coal by blowing up a mountain to extract it you have destroyed a “water maker” for the equivalent of one hour’s worth of electricity for the United States. Let me repeat that. When you extract coal by mountaintop removal you kill a resource that will make water forever -- for the equivalent of one hour’s worth of energy for the U.S. How is that a good investment?
As shareholders of one of the largest financial institutions in the world, you are savvy investors and business minded individuals. How is destroying the mountains that create clean water for a very small, short term financial benefit a good investment? Please stop financing the destruction of our mountains, our water and our communities. Your profits from mountaintop removal mean death for us.
Stand with Elise and RAN by telling Bank of America to stop funding coal -- and come clean on climate change.