The Aboriginal community of Fort Chipewyan is located downstream from one of the most polluting oil operations in the world - the tar sands. Downstream follows Dr. John O’Connor as he fights for the lives of residents who are dying from rare forms of cancer.
In 2005, Dr. John O’Connor spoke out publicly about the unusually high levels of cancer he was witnessing in Fort Chipewyan, a community of 1,200 located in northern Alberta. Dr. O’Connor, a fly-in physician for the community, reported "clusters" of prostate, colon and lung cancers, as well as white blood-related issues, and 3 cases of an incurable and rapidly lethal form of cancer known as "cholangiacarcinoma" (cancer of the bile duct). Normally, cholangiacarcinoma only affects one in every 100,000 people.
Soon after O'Connor sounded the alarm, raising questions about the impacts of tar sands development, Health Canada and Alberta Health and Wellness filed charges against him with the College of Physicians and Surgeons, accusing him of "engendering mistrust, blocking access to files, billing irregularities, and raising undue alarm in the community — serious charges which could've resulted in his license being temporarily suspended or possibly permanently withdrawn," explains a 2008 report in the National Review of Medicine.
In December 2007, the College of Physicians and Surgeons dismissed the all but one of the charges, that he raised "undue alarm" in the community. The claim is "moot" as far as Dr. O'Connor is concerned. He was, after all, just doing his job.
Dr. O'Connor's findings have since been confirmed by Alberta Health Services, even though they (all levels of government) went out of their way to make it appear as if there was no connection whatever to the tar sands.
His findings were also supported by the 2007 study " Water and Sediment Quality as Related to Public Health Issues" in Fort Chipewyan by Dr. Kevin Timoney. The study found high levels of arsenic, aluminum, chromium, cobalt, copper, iron, led, phosphorous, selenium, titanium, and phenols in the waters of the Athabasca river, "high levels of arsenic, cadmium, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAH’s) and resin acids in the sediment, as well as high levels of mercury in tested fish."
A new paper by Dr. Kevin Timoney and Dr. Peter Lee, Does the Alberta Tar Sands Industry Pollute? The Scientific Evidence?, recently published in the Open Conservation Biology Journal, identifies 11 sources of pollution from the tar sands: (1) permitted (licensed) discharges to air and land; (2) seepage from tailings ponds; (3) evaporation from tailings ponds; (4) leaks from pipelines; (5) major spills of bitumen, oil, and wastewater; (6) stack emissions; windblown (7) coke dust, (8) dry tailings, and (9) tar sands dust; (10) outgassing from mine faces; and (11) ancillary activities such as transportation, construction of mines, ponds, roads, pipelines, and facilities, and landscape dewatering."
Despite this and other empirical evidence surrounding the tar sands, there are no signs that the industry will be letting up any time soon. In fact, tar sands development continues to rise---the government standing mute as the environment is obliterated, as the rights and health of the local population is sacrificed, and efforts are undermined to hold them and their partners, the oil industry, accountable.
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