-Posted by Ryan
Over the last several years, Alberta has killed more than 500 wolves using aerial sharpshooters and poisoned bait in order to conceal the impact of rapid industrial development on Canada’s iconic woodland caribou.
Independent scientists say that declining caribou health stems chiefly from habitat destruction caused by the encroachment of the tar sands and timber industries. But in a perverse attempt to cover industry’s tracks, the Alberta government is ignoring the science and shifting the blame to a hapless scapegoat: the wolf.
Is this what “ethical oil” looks like?
You can make a difference by participating in these actions to stop the unscientific wolf cull.
Credo action: Tell the Canadian government: Stop your tar sands wolf kills! – Over 200,000 voices in opposition to the wolf killings.
DeSmogBlog petition on Change.org – Tell Canada’s federal Environment Minister Peter Kent, who considers the cull “an accepted if regrettable scientific practice,” to put an end to the reckless wolf slaughter.
For more information on the tar sands, check out DeSmogBlog’s tar sands action page.
And for those who may be unfamiliar with what the ‘ethical oil’ campaign is,check out our previous coverage of the Sierra Club’s John Bennett and Ethical Oil Institute spokesperson Kathryn Marshall on CBC‘s Power and Politics with Evan Solomon.
A health study released today by the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation and the Mikisew Cree, in collaboration with researchers from the University of Manitoba, is the first of its kind to draw associations between environmental contaminants produced in the oilsands and declines in health in Fort Chipewyan, a native community about 300 kilometres north of Fort McMurray, Alberta.
The report, Environmental and Human Health Implications of Athabasca Oil Sands, finds health impacts for communities downstream of the Alberta oilsands are “positively associated” with industrial development and the consumption of traditional foods, including locally caught fish.
Dr. Stéphane McLachlan, lead environmental health researcher for the report, said the study’s results “as they relate to human health, are alarming and should function as a wakeup call to industry, government and communities alike.”
Findings include generally high concentrations of carcinogenic PAHs (polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons), and heavy metals arsenic, mercury, cadmium and selenium in kidney and liver samples from moose, ducks, muskrats and beavers harvested by community members. A press release for the study says bitumen extraction and upgrading is a major emitter of all of these contaminants.
The Joint Oil Sands Monitoring Program has released data about the increases in these contaminants, but fails to address and monitor impacts to First Nations traditional foods,” said Mikisew Cree Chief Steve Courtoreille. “We are greatly alarmed and demand further research and studies are done to expand on the findings of this report.”
The First Nations worked in concert with University of Manitoba scientists, blending “western science and traditional ecological knowledge” to evaluate contaminant levels and potential community exposure, according to the press release.
“This is the first health study that has been conducted in close collaboration with community members of Fort Chipewyan,” McLachlan said in a recent interview.
“The results are grounded in the environment and health sciences, but also in the local traditional knowledge shared by community members. Unlike any of the other studies it has been actively shaped and controlled by both the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation and the Mikisew Cree First Nation from the outset.”
The report comes on the heels of the fifth annual ‘healing walk’ in the oilsands region, during which Chief Allan Adam of the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation said the report would “blow the socks off industry and government.”
Concerns over high rates of rare forms of bile duct, cervical and lung cancers have worried residents of Fort Chipewyan, a small community 300 kilometres downstream of the oilsands, for years.
A government report in March 2014 found elevated rates of the three forms of cancer in Fort Chip, but suggested overall cancer rates fall on par with cancer rates elsewhere in the province. The report’s author, Dr. James Tablot, chief medical officer for Alberta health, said there was little evidence environmental factors played a role in the elevated cancer rates.
The report was treated as largely inconclusive and confirmed the need for further, independent study.
An editorial in the Calgary Herald argued the report confirmed the need to “settle the matter once and for all” and called for an independent study.
“Only then will the nagging fear — whether founded or unfounded — that the Alberta government is too closely linked with the oilsands to provide objective data and conclusions, be put to rest.”
The community of Fort Chip has struggled for years to have a comprehensive, baseline health study conducted.
In March, Chief Adam suggested it was “time for a real study, that is peer reviewed and done in partnership with our communities.” He suggested the government report was conducted to “ease the public response to this and garner more support for approvals of more projects in the region.”
Today researchers and community leaders called for further investigation of contaminant concentrations, as well as community-based monitoring and improved risk communications from government and industry.
This is the third installment in a three-part series on Dr. John O’Connor, the family physician to first identify higher-than-average cancer rates and rare forms of cancer in communities downstream of the Alberta oilsands.
Part 3: The Spotlight Turns On Fort Chip Doctor
After the story of Fort Chip’s health problems broke, Health Canada sent physicians out to the small, northern community.
Dr. John O’Connor said one of the Health Canada doctors went into the local nursing station and, in front of a reporter, filled a mug with Fort Chip water and drank from it, saying, ‘See, there’s nothing wrong with it.’
“That was such a kick in the face for everyone,” O’Connor said. “Just a complete dismissal of their concerns.”
Health Canada eventually requested the charts of the patients who had died. Six weeks later they announced the findings of a report that concluded cancer rates were no higher in Fort Chip than expected.
For O’Connor, however, the numbers “just didn’t match up.”
The small town of Fort Chipewyan can reached by plane all year round. In the summer the community can be reached by boat or by ice road during the colder winter months. Photo by Kris Krug.
A sign in the Fort Chip airport terminal welcomes visitors to the “oldest settlement in Alberta.” Photo by Kris Krug.
In March of 2007 O’Connor received a letter of complaint from the College of Physicians and Surgeons of Alberta that accused him of raising “undue alarm.” Three physicians from Health Canada lodged four complaints with the college against O’Connor, claiming he had failed to provide files in a timely fashion and withheld information. They accused him of engendering mistrust.
O’Connor admits that a minor scandal involving a male nurse in Fort Chip who had been stealing morphine and threatening female nurses didn’t help with submitting paperwork. But, he said, the charges were overblown, also including accusations of billing irregularities and ‘double-dipping’ on contracts.
What followed was a nationwide two-year public trial.O’Connor’s name was publicly dragged through the mud while the town of Fort Chip and members of his profession fought to defend him. The attacks on his credibility were widely seen as politicized, leading the Canadian Medical Association to pass resolution #103, to provide protection for whistleblowers like O’Connor.
In 2009, the College of Physicians officially cleared him of any wrong doing, handing along a massive summary file with the word “confidential” stamped across the front. Since then, he’s been heralded as a heroic Canadian whistleblower.
During the ordeal, O’Connor moved back to Nova Scotia for a break while another physician took over his work in Fort Chip.
“I’ve got a very strong wife. My rock. Charlene is just amazing. I don’t think I would have survived if it wasn’t for her,” O’Connor said. “I’m a much tougher person now than what I was. It was hell but I went through it.”
In the interim, a scientist had overseen testing in November of 2007 that warned of high concentrations of arsenic and mercury in the water and traditional foods. A doctor later publicly recommended pregnant women and children not eat any fish from the lake or play in the water.
Health Canada followed up on the recommendation, saying they had already recommended something similar, but the community said it hadn’t been informed.
Then in 2009 an Alberta Cancer Board study was finally released that stated the community had 30 per cent higher rare cancer rates than should be expected. The report amended the Health Canada findings from 2006 that suggested cancer rates were no higher than expected.
In light of this new report, a scientific team was assembled to put together a new study. O’Connor was asked to be a part of the team.
“The fact that we were going to have a health study at Fort Chip [was] very encouraging,” he said.
The frozen expanse of Lake Athabasca. Photo by Kris Krug.
But things soon fell apart after a clause in the template of the health study mandated the oil industry be part of the management oversight committee of the research.
The community was outraged, O’Connor said, and the fissure that formed then has, even five years later, still not been mended.
To this day, independent, comprehensive baseline studies of the community of Fort Chip have still not been conducted.
However, last month the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation and the Mikisew Cree First Nation, both local to Fort Chip, released a study conducted in collaboration with scientists from the University of Manitoba. The research showed health impacts downstream of the oilsands are “positively associated” with the development and the consumption of traditional foods.
In 2011, O’Connor was asked to participate in an Alberta government study, one of which will take place in Fort MacKay. The announcement was made publicly, among much publicity, he said. Some of the work being done in Fort MacKay was supposed to act as a template for future Fort Chip research, he said.
A signpost in Fort Chip shows distances and direction to cities across Canada. Photo by Kris Krug.
But since then the study has lagged, and, according to O’Connor, his letters and phone calls to the Alberta Health Minister go unanswered. Comprehensive studies of both Fort MacKay and Fort Chip are still pending.
The community members of Fort Chip and O’Connor himself are “demanding the government keep its promise of a health study, but we’re getting nowhere with that,” he said.
Going it alone
O’Connor said for now he’s relying on the independent scientific studies that are being done in the environment downstream of the oilsands. A February 2014 study published in theProceedings of the National Academy of Sciences found levels of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), a cancer-causing pollutant released during the extraction of bitumen in the oilsands, were likely two to three times higher than government and industry estimates.
In November of 2012 federal scientists from Environment Canada presented research that found PAHs from oilsands extraction and processing were accumulating in bodies of water up to 100 kilometres away. Yet another federal study found tailings ponds, which cover an area larger than 176 square kilometres, are seeping waste water and mining-related toxins into local groundwater.
Steam rises from a tailings pond in the Fort McMurray region. Industry estimates there are 176 square kilometres of tailings ponds. Photo by Kris Krug.
O’Connor said, put together, these studies paint a disturbing picture. “And you know, all they are telling me completely contradicted what government and industry have been saying for years: that there’s no impact, no evidence of contributions, degradation to the environment from industry.”
Even the release of new research, he says, hasn’t been enough to trigger new health studies.
“So we’re trying to go it alone,” he said.
O’Connor has assembled a team of science and health experts to examine the industrial impacts in Fort MacKay and hopes he can eventually include Fort Chip.
At this point, O’Connor said, neither Fort MacKay nor Fort Chip are in any position to accept a government study on the health impacts of industry. The necessary trust relationships at this point are nonexistent.
An advocate become activist
For O’Connor, his experience working with the community of Fort Chip, and his efforts to find some accountability for their plight, has been something of a transformative experience.
“All I’m doing is my job,” he said. “I’m just… As a physician, I’m an advocate for my patients. I never realized how….” He paused, “exactly what the job meant until Fort Chip.”
O’Connor said he’ll continue fighting for the community of Fort Chip. But beyond that, O’Connor now sees himself as more than just as an advocate for his patients: he’s an activist.
“I’m now – thanks to the Alberta government and the federal government – I’m now a dyed-in-the-wool advocate. I’m an activist for my patients. Never imagined I would be doing this and I’ll do it ‘til the day I die.”
In February 2014, O’Connor traveled to Washington to testify on the affects of the oilsands industry, in light of the U.S.’s pending decision on the Keystone XL pipeline, which will connect Alberta to refineries and export facilities in the Gulf of Mexico. He was invited by Senator Barbara Boxer.
Dr. John O’Connor speaking on the negative impacts of oilsands development at a press conference in Washington. Image credit:EWPChairBoxer via Flickr.
“It was gratifying to get the invitation from Senator Boxer’s office,” O’Connor said. “The reception there was incredible. The information that was already known. I was very happy that I was walking into a setting where I wasn’t having to start from scratch.”
O’Connor added, “I made it very firm that I’m not saying to shut things down…But there has to be a sort of a middle ground.”
He added, “I certainly hold the governments to account…But government has failed, completely failed people, betrayed people.”
This is the first installment of a three-part series on Dr. John O’Connor, the family physician to first identify higher-than-average cancer rates and rare forms of cancer in communities downstream of the Alberta oilsands.
Part 1: The Doctor and the Dawn of a New Oilsands Era: ‘It Was Fascinating’
The day John O’Connor landed in Canada from his native Ireland,* he had no idea how much he would end up giving to this land, nor how much it would ultimately demand from him.
“I had no intention of staying in Canada,” he told DeSmog Canada in a recent interview. “The intention was to go back.”
“But I got enchanted with Canada.”
That was back in 1984 when O’Connor first arrived in Canada for a three-month locum.
With a large family practice already well established in Scotland, O’Connor had no real intention of settling in this foreign land where, in a few decades, he would find himself embroiled in a national conflict — a conflict that would pick at so many of our country’s deepest-running wounds involving oil, First Nations and the winners and losers of our resource race.
No, when O’Connor landed in Canada he was just planning to fill a temporary family physician position in Nova Scotia. Soon after his arrival, however, his light curiosity about Canada transformed into a newfound passion. He was hooked.
“It was just a perfect match for me.”
After nearly a decade, O’Connor decided a shift to Alberta made sense for him and his growing family. He travelled there in search of what so many still do: opportunity.
“The kids were getting to the point where I realized I would probably like to look at opportunities in terms of careers that may not have been available in the Maritimes. So I came out to Alberta in 1993.”
O’Connor landed in Edmonton, rented a car and explored four practices with openings for new physicians.
“Fort McMurray was the last destination, and it looked the most attractive of all of the options,” he said.
Back in ’93 Fort McMurray was an entirely different place. With a population of around 30,000 people, the community was far from a boom town. It was under-doctored, said O’Connor, and extremely friendly. Within a few weeks, the O’Connor family made friends with patients who had kids of a similar age. They joined sports teams and attended good schools.
“It was good. Don’t regret it for a second,” O’Connor said.
At the time, the oilsands were hardly a topic of conversation, O’Connor remembers.
“You could certainly see what was being emitted from the smokestacks in the distance,” he said. Once, O’Connor even drove toward the smoke, trying to catch a glimpse of the source, but he never spent much time thinking about it.
Emissions rise from industrial facilities in the oilsands region. Photo by Kris Krug.
Many of his patients were working in the oilsands.
“I would listen to their descriptions of work and everything else. And it was fascinating, but I really didn’t have time and probably not, at that point, the interest in knowing more about it,” he said.
In 1998, O’Connor travelled out to Fort MacKay, home of the Fort MacKay First Nation, for the first time.
A road sign directs traffic to Syncrude operations and the community of Fort MacKay along the main highway in Fort McMurray. Photo by Kris Krug.
“It was an eye-opener,” he said, “realizing how close the community was to development. How much the community depended on the tar sands.”
When he first arrived the medical centre was no more than two double-wide trailers pulled together. Within two or three years, the band had built an impressive new centre for the community.
“[There was] obviously a very important connection between the community of Fort MacKay and industry for socio-economic reasons,” O’Connor came to recognize.
It was the dawn of a new era for the region, O’Connor said. Things started to get busier.
“This was the beginning of the two or three booms that we’ve seen over the last about 14 years or so. Just to be there as an observer of this and not directly dependent on the mystery…” he said of the oilsands boom.
“But realizing its importance, that it was a…” O’Connor trailed off with a sigh.
He picked up again: “I’m going to write a book on this.”
“My wife has grabbed me by the scruff of the neck and said, ‘Do it,’” he laughed.
“We’ve talked about it for a few years and that early time that I’m trying to describe to you, it was fascinating and very important for what came later.”
Dawn of a new oilsands era
The ’90s were a transformative time for the Alberta oilsands. New advancements in technology improved the economic prospects of extracting and processing the resource and led to an ambitious industry and government strategy to dramatically increase production in 1995.
Highway 63, also known as the “Highway of Death” for its dangerous and busy conditions, runs through Fort McMurray. Photo by Kris Krug.
As a part of this new strategy the Canadian and Albertan governments dropped royalty and tax rates in an effort to generate interest in the resource.
What’s contained in the tarry sands of northern Alberta is a heavy hydrocarbon called bitumen. As industry describes it, unprocessed bitumen has the consistency of “peanut butter” and, as a result, requires tremendous amounts of energy to extract, process and upgrade into lighter fuels.
Before the technology existed to essentially melt the bitumen out of the sands, oil companies expressed little interest in the region.
But all that changed with new methods for extraction and upgrading and some of the lowest royalties and taxes in the world.
By 1995, Alberta announced a new goal of producing one million barrels a day from the oilsands by 2020. They passed that goal 16 years early in 2004. Plans now involve producing up to 5 million barrels a day by 2030.
Retired machinery forms part of a sideroad display along the ‘Syncrude Loop’ in Fort McMurray. Photo by Kris Krug.
While these transformations took place, O’Connor’s business steadily grew, as did the need for him in downstream and local communities, especially First Nation communities.
O’Connor began to see the oilsands at this time as a “two-edged sword.”
“Couldn’t possibly live without it,” he said, “but at the same time, having to contend with the fact — no doubt — about the impact; the adverse impact on environment and life in general.”
O’Connor said that in those early years the impact of development wasn’t yet visible, but by the early 2000s things started to change.
Read part 2: Deformed Fish, Dying Muskrats Cause Doctor to Sound Alarm. Stay tuned for part 3 of this series.
*Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated O’Connor was from Scotland.
Image Credit: In 2011 DeSmog author Carol Linnitt travelled to the oilsands region and Fort Chipewyan with photographer Kris Krug. All photos by Kris Krug.