The Heartland and the Double Bind
Much of the proposed new development in north-central Alberta—also known as the Heartland—is focused on upgraders, facilities that convert bitumen from the oil sands into synthetic crude oil. But will this Upgrader Alley become Cancer Alley?
“This is the future site of the Total upgrader,” says Anne Brown, pointing at a map on the table. “It would be right across the river from us.” We’re sitting on the porch of her white bungalow, in a subdivision near Fort Saskatchewan, Alberta. “If you turn at the corner here,” she says, her finger drawing a line on the map, “you’ll go by the Shell upgrader. We know of three men that were diagnosed with blood cancers within three miles of that facility.” She looks out over her freshly mown lawn, bordered by aspen trees rustling in a wind. “We don’t know if there’s a link between the cancers and industry,” she says, “but before building more upgraders, let’s find out what’s going on.”
Tall, with curly dark hair and a soft voice, Brown, a mother of three, is a member of Citizens for Responsible Development, a group of local residents concerned about the impacts of oil, gas, and petrochemical development in Alberta’s Industrial Heartland. Situated northeast of Edmonton, due south from the oil sands around Fort McMurray, the Heartland is Canada’s largest hydrocarbon processing region. It’s a vast area: 582 square kilometres sprawling over three counties, Fort Saskatchewan (pop. 18,653), and 49 square kilometres of Edmonton. More than 40 companies, including Dow Chemical, Agrium, and Shell Canada already have projects here. Now, with growing production in the oil sands to the north, industry analysts believe investment in the Heartland may soon ramp up.
Much of the proposed new development is focused on upgraders. Only one, owned by Shell Canada, is currently operating. But more are in the works. Alberta’s Energy Resources and Conservation Board (ERCB) has given regulatory approval for five upgraders. In June 2010, a proposal by Total E&P Canada for another new $8 billion upgrader went before an ERCB hearing in Fort Saskatchewan.
The spate of approvals led to the area becoming known as “Upgrader Alley.” But others wonder if “Cancer Alley” is a more appropriate moniker. In the last decade, Brown and other members of her group attended multiple ERCB hearings into new upgraders, raising concerns about cumulative impacts to air and water quality and human health in the region. “The environmental impact assessments have shown over the years that there is an increased risk of cancer and lung disease in this area,” says Brown. She gathers up the thick pile of maps, articles and scientific documents on the porch table. The ERCB ruling into the Total upgrader is a month away. “We’re waiting to see what the board will decide,” she says. “We know there are connections between blood cancers and emissions. How high do the risks have to go before someone says that’s enough?”
“The sky’s the limit,” says Neil Shelly, Executive Director of Alberta’s Industrial Heartland Association (AIHA). Before driving to Fort Saskatchewan I talk to Shelly on the phone about the Heartland’s future. “If we can get the upgrader base established,” he says, “the potential investment here is probably in excess of $60 billion.”
Roughly in the centre of the Heartland, the economy of Fort Saskatchewan was once built on farming and a jail. The rich soil on the banks of the North Saskatchewan River still grows bumper crops of potatoes and fields of wheat, while in the past the old downtown jail held prisoners from across Alberta. The year after the last man executed in Alberta was hanged here in 1960, Dow Chemical built a plant at the edge of town. Attracted by the proximity to Edmonton, the river, and CN and CP Rail, more companies moved in. The area became a petrochemical hub.