I wrote this piece one week after my arrival in Fort McMurray in July 2013. Posted unedited here to maintain the spirit in which it was written.
The three of us, the reclamation manager, the trainee, and myself, drive in a white company 4 by 4 down the road along the edge of the site that we are touring, Canadian Natural Resources Limited’s Horizon site. The road, tired from the weight of mega-trucks, is uneven. We bump along. Dust flies everywhere: the windows must stay rolled up. ‘This road can turn from mud to dust in a week, or even a day,’ the manager says. Today it is dust, and we are driving within a brown semitransparent wall thrown up by similar 4 by 4’s and mammoth oil sands trucks. Even through the dust, we can make out a grey mass of stockpiled earth on the South side of the road. ‘We do reclamation differently here.’ We are told that, instead of sand, the typical material used to contain tailings ponds, the subsoil that once lay above the bitumen deposits is built into a tailings pond dyke on this site. It is this dyke that we see along the side of the road, built from grey stony overburden piled 10-storeys tall.
Five days earlier and about 50 kilometres away from the Horizon site, at the 4th Annual Tar Sands Healing Walk, Naomi Klein’s voice rang out in solidarity with local Aboriginal groups calling for healing rather than further tar sands expansion. A diverse group of 500 stood in the rain, listening to her words. ‘Overburden has two meanings,’ she says. The first is defined by industry as the layer of boreal forest, muskeg, and soil layers that lie above bitumen deposits, and thus in the way of tar sands mining. All that gets in the way, Klein suggests; the life that gets in the way. The second, she tells us, means simply to burden something with excessive strain. In this way, Klein indicates that the tar sands overburden the system, the environment, and local communities.
But, on overburden, the layer that gets in the way, or the weight that communities must carry, things grow.
As the three of us continue our tour of Horizon, driving along the dusty, strained road, we turn our attention to the North, where we see an overburden stockpile of a different kind: the topsoil. Its surface has been compacted from heavy snow during the several winters that have passed since it was placed there. Unlike on the earth that makes up the dyke, plants are growing to form a sea of green. The manager informs us that when the overburden is removed from the bitumen deposits, the top layer is salvaged for future site reclamation, when it will be spread to create the surface of a newly built boreal landscape. The topsoil bookends the life of a mine: topsoil removal marks the birth of a mine, and spreading it across the mine’s surface in reclamation marks the end. The pile of earth that we see to the North is industry’s ‘insurance’ for closing the mine: topsoil that is waiting to be made useful again in land reclamation.
On this deemed stagnant and currently useless overburden, plant life is growing rampantly: seedlings several feet high of aspen and poplar, an abundance of grass and sedge, some cattail wetter areas. Roots that remained in the overburden have taken to their new location and plants have blown in from the surrounding boreal forest. There are even unplanned depressions in the topsoil overburden that have created unexpected wetlands. ‘Mother Nature takes over,’ the manager explains. Despite the dormant depiction of the stockpile, Mother Nature remains dynamic and cannot always be calculated. In spite of the enormous scale of oil sands development and what some have called the ‘raping’ of the land, life persists. This incalculable, determined life transforms the concept of overburden into something that is very much alive: defiant, adaptive, and resilient in the face of development.
Overburden, it seems, is not just all that gets in the way, or too much weight to bear. Overburden is also a place for life and growth. Through an economic or capitalistic lens, overburden is considered dead and mere ‘insurance’ until the real place for growth, the mine itself, is no longer industrially useful. Instead, if we turn our gaze towards the life that grows on the stockpile, overburden can come to mean a kind of growth that represents the strength and resiliency of life and Mother Nature, and of human inhabitants and their environments. In spite of and within the expansion of development, removing all that gets in the way, straining the environment and local people, there is hope for something different. Mother Nature takes over, communities resist, the unexpected takes root.
As I inwardly reflect upon the hope in this new framing of overburden, we continue down the dusty road. I turn my attention to the distinction between the North and South sides of the road, and find myself overwhelmed by the contrast between the green of the stockpiled topsoil and the grey of the mined area and tailings pond. It appears to me as a material illustration of the extreme polarisation of the tar sands debate, where oil sands advocates present green images of a clean industry, and anti-tar sands activists provide the public with grey images of dirty operations. The striking polarisation created by the tar sands is deeply embedded in the land and public perceptions. Each side represents growth in their own ways: capitalistic rhetoric frames the grey mine itself as growth, while many anti-tar sands advocates describe transitions towards more green modes of living as growth (degrowth, even) – each, ironically, often using images of the other to present their ideas. Confronted with a material exemplification of the tar sands debate, what is most remarkable is how incredibly proximate these two sides are, merely on opposite sides of the same overburdened road.
How to find a peaceful middle ground on which to communicate effectively across sides that are so separated? Perhaps the answer lies in rethinking and reframing the terms of the debate, and overburden is as good a place to start as any. When faced with its material reality, it is undeniable that overburden is more than just all that gets in the way, or too much strain to bear. Overburden can also be seen as a material and ideological space for growth and life. How this space is discursively articulated and materially constituted on the land then becomes important for considering not only the future of this land and its people, but for finding a road in-between contesting views.