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Surprise! Tar sands are toxic after all

September 26, 2010 Leave a comment Go to comments

Earthgauge exclusive interview with Dr. John O’Connor – former physician in the northern Alberta community of Fort Chipewyan

It’s hard to believe that an exhaustive study was necessary but it seems the Alberta tar sands are indeed producing elevated levels of toxins in the local environment. David Schindler, the lead author of the study released 3 weeks ago, studied river water upstream and downstream of oil sands operations. It found higher than normal levels of priority pollutant metals, including lead and mercury, which are both neurotoxins.

Last week, Mr. Schindler and commercial fishermen showed off diseased, discoloured, disfigured fish caught in Lake Athabasca, downstream of the oil sands. One fish had a tumour the size of a golf ball. Another was missing part of its spine.

Now, even the government of Alberta seems to be taking the issue more seriously. Facing growing concerns about the impact of oil sands operations, the government is bringing together scientists to try to resolve whether the industry is poisoning surrounding rivers, lakes and groundwater – and they have invited Schindler himself to help select the members of the 6-person panel.

This is a welcome development but you have to wonder why something like this didn’t happen sooner. After all, the French monthly journal,”Le Monde Diplomatique”, in it’s April edition took a hard look into the immense tar-sands projects and reported that the cancer rate in the region is becoming “alarming”, 30% above the Albertan provincial average. National Geographic also did an exposé last year that was far from flattering.

Even more significantly, Dr. John O’Connor – the former family physician in the Aboriginal community of Fort Chipewyan, Alberta – had insisted years ago that there was bound to be a link between health and pollution levels in the region. A few months after arriving in 2001, Dr. O’Connor noticed a disturbing set of symptoms in one of his patients: yellowed eyes, fatigue and abdominal discomfort. O’Connor’s father had exhibited eerily similar symptoms 13 years earlier, shortly before dying of an extremely rare form of cancer called cholangiocarcinoma.

Statistically, there should be only one case for every 100,000 people, and none at all for a community the size of Fort Chip, as its known to locals, with a population of only 1000. In the next few years, however, at least three residents of the town died of the disease and another two deaths are suspected to have been caused by the cancer.

There were similar patterns with other serious diseases including leukemia, lymphoma and colon cancer. Although there was no way of knowing for certain what was causing the illnesses, the most likely culprit was obvious to Dr. O’Connor. After all, Fort Chip is located downstream of the world’s largest industrial project – the Athabasca tar sands, where 1.5 million barrels of oil are produced each day from heavy bitumen beneath the boreal forest. Residents of Fort Chip had been noticing abnormalities in their local environment for some time: foul-tasting water, noticeably poor air quality, even deformed fish. With 11,000 tonnes of daily emissions and “snow that falls grey-ish in colour”, as O’Connor describes it, he thought that there was bound to be a link.

Yet, when he raised alarms about this, he says “the wrath of God came down on me”. Alberta Health Services responded by publicly downplaying any link between increased cancer rates and tar sands developments. Complaints were made against the doctor to the Alberta College of Physicians; and Health Canada, a federal government department, even accused him of raising undue alarm, blocking access to files and engendering mistrust.

“I’m not political or against industry, but I’m sure as hell against the peril aboriginal communities have been put in,” O’Connor told The Irish Times. “I’m blown away that this kind of thing could be happening anywhere, especially in Canada. But there is an incredible level of collusion between oil companies and the government. It’s a rat’s nest.”

It wasn’t until 2007 that the Alberta College of Physicians and Surgeons finally cleared O’Connor of the charges leveled against him; and the Alberta Cancer Board has since confirmed that the high cancer rates in Fort Chip could indeed be due to environmental factors, though tar sands pollution has yet to be proven conclusively as the cause.

Now O’Connor, the residents of Fort Chip and other First Nations in the region want answers. What are the real environmental and health risks posed by the tar sands? What is causing the changes in their environment and the high rates of disease in indigenous communities? Theirs is a struggle for truth and perhaps even for survival, and they want the world to hear their story.

Click the audio player above to hear my interview with Dr. John O’Connor. To download the file, right click here and select ‘Save as’ or ‘Save target as’.

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