Hellish Highway 63 Strikes Again

Andrew Nikiforuk's call for a crack down. Plus, an excerpt on the road to Fort McMurray from 'Tar Sands.'

By Andrew Nikiforuk 5 May 2012 | TheTyee.ca

Award-winning journalist Andrew Nikiforuk writes about energy for The Tyee and others. Find his previous Tyee articles here.

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Highway 63 near Fort Mac. Photo: Wikipedia.

The recent death and immolation of seven people (eight if you include the unborn) on Highway 63 has sparked much debate throughout Canada about the perilous death trap to the tar sands.

And for good reason. Politicians and oil executives may come and go in Alberta, but the carnage on Highway 63 never ceases.

For more than a decade now, the infamous 240 kilometre stretch of highway between Fort McMurray and Edmonton has served as a bloody and troubling metaphor for much of what ails the oil sands.

In fact, the Highway of Tears symbolizes not only a lack of provincial government foresight and planning, but an almost pathological disregard for the pace and scale of development in the mining project.

The Alberta government's failure to honour its promise to twin the highway six years ago, let alone even provide a basic Medivac helicopter service for the so-called economic engine of Canada, speaks volumes and surprises no one living in the region. In fact, only 33 km got twinned, and most of that was on a stretch to the Suncor and Syncrude mine sites.

Every Stephen, Alison and Joe wants to take or dig something out of Fort McMurray, but God forbid that any corporation or government actually give something back that seriously builds community and nourishes health in a mining town. (Premier Alison Redford has promised to review the twinning schedule.)

In 2007, a government report on the region's heavy infrastructure deficits criticized the federal government's $150-million commitment to upgrade Highway 63 as "insufficient" given that Ottawa collects more revenue from the tar sands than Alberta's provincial government in corporate taxes.

The report also lambasted new oil tar sand developers for not donating much to community development: they "have not stepped up to the plate in the same way Suncor and Syncrude have done over the years." In fact, the more the region booms, the less companies and governments give back.

The Royal Society of Canada has described the region's high level of highway accidents, spousal abuse, STDs and drug addictions as consistent with "boom town impacts and infrastructure deficits."

But the highway's lethality doesn't end with the region's honeypot capitalism and infrastructure inequities. The peculiar "jackass" driving culture that now commands the boomtown highway remains a critical issue too.

On Hell's Highway, packs of six vehicles often pass other cars or trucks at speeds as high as 200 km an hour in a race to whack off 60 minutes from the four-and-a-half hour long drive to Edmonton.

"We can make our highway safer, but the province has to step it up with fines and consequences for aggressive driving," says one old-timer, and that's the truth of the matter. "Alberta has to step it up.

Letting lunatics loose

It's an old story. Back in 2004 both Dr. John O'Connor and Dr. Michel Sauve, two veteran and well-respected physicians in the region, warned about the growing number of fatal accidents on the highway and called for its twinning to save lives. The dead have gone from an average of five workers a year (2001-2005) to nine a year (2007-2012), along with hundreds of injuries.

"Eight years later and we still have no progress," decries 55-year-old O'Connor. "I'm outraged and furious. The highway should have been twinned in 2009," adds the region's former medical examiner.

O'Connor, who now serves as health director for Fort McKay, has treated scores of injured from Highway 63. The burn victims are the worst, he says. In one case he remembers finding nothing more than a pair of feet in shoes.

"The mine workers leave their dead safe environments (safety is almost a cult for some Big Oil firms), hit the road and then become lunatics and go ape shit. They drive like there is no tomorrow," says O'Connor.

The outspoken doctor, who also identified clusters of rare cancers downstream of the project in Fort Chip (and that's another issue that hasn't been twinned), thinks that Big Oil should have built a railway to Edmonton a decade ago, but premier Ralph Klein didn't believe in planning for boomtowns. (A railway might have been cheaper than the current $2-billion twinning project.)

He calls the government's excuses for not twinning the road (the government now claims to be worried about endangered caribou) both specious and dishonest. "They don't worry about caribou when they dig up the mines." He also thinks lower speeds limits and higher fines are urgently needed.

Call for a crack down

People who work and drive on the highway agree. In fact, they regard the highway's dangerous character as solely a matter of bad boomtown attitude.

"You can twin the highway and add 500 police officers but that won't change a thing until you change this man-made culture," says one veteran worker.

On Hell's Highway, young men with fat petro dollars in their pockets recognize that the current system offers no hard consequences and no respectful fines for bad driving behavior. Period.

Ask any sheriff or RCMP officer along the route and they'll tell you that drivers don't even blink when handed a $350 ticket for speeding or a $402 fine for stunt driving. And those are the maximum fines.

Don't even mention the demerit system. It allows offenders to wrack up five tickets before anything happens and only if the offender can't afford a lawyer to stall justice in a congested and overworked court system.

In a mining town with big paycheques "these fines and demerits don't mean anything to anybody," explains the worker.

Normal provinces, however, take safety a little more seriously than Alberta's politicians and corporate leaders. Drive 50 km above the speed limit (a common practice on Highway 63) in B.C. and your vehicle can be seized for seven days. Drive that speed in Ontario and you'll face both seizure and a $10,000 fine.

Only those kind of consequences combined with restricted hours for oversized traffic (a lot of accidents involve slow moving heavy equipment hauling bitumen equipment) will end the jackass culture along with the careless carnage. Big thousand dollar penalties for the employers of jackass drivers might also save lives.

Hell's Highway is not about the weather or the infrastructure, adds the worker.

"It's all about the people. It's a man-made problem and this province needs to crack down and get serious about consequences if it wants to change the culture."


By Andrew Nikiforuk

(Excerpted from chapter four in Tar Sands: Dirty Oil and the Future of a Continent.)

"Frontier expansion without adequate planning has left cities crippled by shameful environments which cause human casualties." -- Eldean V. Kohrs, psychologist, speech to the Rocky Mountain American Association of the Advancement of Science Meeting, 1974.

The highway to Canada's El Dorado formally begins about 125 miles north of Edmonton, just past the busy Al-Pac pulp mill and a village called Amber Valley, where Oklahoma blacks once settled to make a new start. The government originally built the road to serve Fort McMurray, then a mining community of 25,000, in the 1970s. Now the 150-mile, all-weather Alberta autobahn accommodates a population of more than 80,000 fortune seekers on the move. Every day, nearly 50 newcomers travel north on the highway, which snakes through spruce and muskeg to the mines. They don't know that most people in Fort McMurray call the road Hell's Highway, Suicide 63, or the Highway of Death. The police call it McMurray 500.

Highway 63 is not as dangerous as the North Yungas Road in Bolivia, an Andean precipice that sends hundreds of motorists to their deaths every year. Nor is it as unreliable as the Siberian road to the oil fields of Yakutsk, which becomes a deep bog every spring. But Hell's Highway offers its own set of challenges. Even before the current boom, miners travelled the long road warily, in heavy vehicles with bumper stickers that read, "Pray for Me. I Drive Highway 63."

Since 1996 and the Declaration of Opportunity, traffic on the road has increased to a frantic level, as has the praying. In 1999, the highway killed three workers. By 2001, the number had shot up to nine. In 2007, Highway 63 claimed 17 lives. Between 2001 and 2005, 1,000 collisions killed 25 people and injured nearly 300 more. Every week, regular as clockwork, the highway silences or maims another miner.

On any given day, thousands of logging trucks, SUVs, semi-trailers, buses, and tanker trucks form a nonstop parade to and from the mighty tar sands. Convoys carrying extra-wide loads, including tires and coker ovens the size of houses, often take up three-quarters of the highway. These mega convoys move at 10 miles an hour and effectively block any view of oncoming traffic. According to Syncrude Canada, Highway 63 probably ferries the highest tonnage per mile of any road in Canada and is "inadequate for the traffic that uses it." TransAlta once dumped a steam turbine on the highway.

The road's inadequacy encourages a certain do-or-die recklessness. Drivers pass not only on solid lines on hills but also on soft shoulders, at speeds that might alarm race-car professionals. (The average speeding ticket clocks in at nearly 100 miles an hour.) Impatient drivers regularly swing onto the shoulder to catch a glimpse around a wide load, then dart out into the other lane to pass like bats out of hell. You never know when your number might come up.

Thursday and Sunday evenings are the worst. That's when the shifts change at the mines and thousands of workers return to their families and girlfriends in Edmonton. Most are exhausted; many are drugged on amphetamines or pissed to the gills. A lot of people won't drive at all on those days, particularly with children. They don't want to be remembered as another little white cross decorated with a blue hard hat, an empty Russian vodka bottle, or an overstuffed teddy bear along the roadside. Every week the local newspaper, Fort McMurray Today, reports another bloody accident due to "burgeoning oil sands development."

Even Alberta politicians, who celebrate the energy boom as if it were a grand birthday party, openly fear Highway 63. When former transport minister Lyle Oberg, a physician, went to check out the traffic a few years ago, he spent most of his visit patching up an accident victim. Whenever local MLA Guy Boutilier drives "the zoo," his wife, Gail, anxiously awaits his return, greeting him at the door with "Thank God you made it." After a bus accident killed six workers and injured eight in 2005, the government championed a $650-million plan to twin the road. Three years later, the twinning has grown into a $970-million project. Given labour shortages and other inflationary pressures (the road will cost two-and-a-half times more per mile than any other road in Alberta, because of the muskeg), no one expects it to be finished any time soon. Most Albertans believe that the rail link between Edmonton and Fort McMurray should have been upgraded years ago and that industry should have paid the bill.

The carnage on the road, like everything about the tar sands, is graphic. It's heavy metal on heavy metal, and at high speeds. When a worker struck a wide load near Mariana Lakes in 2007, it sheared off the top of his car. After a crash involving two semi-trailers in 2008, firefighters spent a couple of hours removing the mangled bodies from a cab that looked like an accordion. In one notorious accident, a logging truck clipped the back of a parked flatbed trailer. The collision pitched the truck's logs missile-like into an oncoming minivan carrying 62-year-old Ralph Brandson and 37-year-old Erkin Kanhodjaev, an immigrant from Kazakhstan. The logs crushed both men. In recent years, the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers has lost 13 members on Hell's Highway. The RCMP issued nearly 18,000 driving violations in 2004 on one stretch of the highway alone.

Officially, Alberta Energy spokespeople blame moronic drivers and wildlife for the mounting death toll. Deer and moose have been known to take suicidal runs at semitrailers and Ford F-350s on Highway 63.

But most McMurrayites quietly concede, as one Internet blogger wrote, that "people on Highway 63 drive like assholes." Most agree "there should be a huge premium paid by the large oil companies for all of the huge loads being hauled up that highway and destroying it." Petro politicians, however, never talk this way.

Excerpt from the book Tar Sands: Dirty Oil and the Future of a Continent, © 2008 & 2010 by Andrew Nikiforuk, published by Greystone Books in partnership with the David Suzuki Foundation.  [Tyee]

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