Oil Sands Truth: Shut Down the Tar Sands

Fort McMurray: Boomtown on a bender

Boomtown on a bender

Jun 28th 2007 | FORT MCMURRAY
From The Economist print edition
The downside of explosive growth in northern Alberta

WITH C$36 billion ($25 billion) invested so far in its oil sands and another C$45 billion expected over the next decade, the Canadian province of Alberta is booming. Workers have flocked in, lured by wages of up to C$120,000 a year. The once sleepy town of Fort McMurray, at the centre of the bonanza, boasts a crowded casino and a busy airport. But big money has brought big problems, including overstretched infrastructure and soaring drug use.

The town's population has grown by 9% a year for the past six years, says Sheldon Germain, the deputy mayor. In all directions, swampy forests are giving way to sprawling rows of clapboard houses that cost more than they would in the suburbs of Toronto.

The local authorities are struggling to cope. They cannot approve any more buildings in the town centre, Mr Germain says, because the sewerage system is overflowing. Doctors at the hospital complain of being overwhelmed; housing costs deter new recruits. The sole road connecting Fort McMurray with the rest of the province is crowded and deadly. The only way for the town to raise revenue to tackle these problems is to increase property taxes. But locals complain that they already suffer from exorbitant local prices, and want the oil companies to foot the bill.

Crime is another problem. Many of the thousands of workers who live in barrack-like accommodation at nearby mines and construction sites come to town at weekends, to drink a beer or ten, brawl, and buy sex and drugs. “This town is awash in cocaine,” says one long-time resident. Marijuana, crack and crystal meth are also widely used. Drug abuse in the northern oil patch is more than four times the provincial average.

According to Harold Hoffman, a specialist in occupational medicine in Edmonton, about 40% of the workers test positive for cocaine or marijuana in job screening or post-accident tests. Companies worry about lower productivity (due to absenteeism or sloppy work) caused by drug abuse, and the safety risk. On drilling rigs and in oil-sands mines a small mistake can easily result in injury or death. Some experts believe Alberta's rising job-site accident rate (up 17% in two years to 180,000 cases in 2006) is partly due to drug abuse.

Most of the biggest companies conduct drug tests before hiring, as well as after any accident. But many workers have learned to get around these with synthetic-urine kits from drug-paraphernalia shops. Many smaller contractors prefer to turn a blind eye for fear of losing workers in such a tight labour market. Lawrence Derry, an addiction expert at the University of Alberta, says that one contractor told him that “if I brought in drug testing, I'd lose half my crew—they'd go right over to my competitor.”

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