A northern Alberta First Nations community, sited down river from the tar sands, is suffering from a higher-than-normal incidence of cancer. Dr. John O'Connor was instrumental in drawing attention to the cancer rate. So why is he seen as a bad guy?
On June 11, 2009, Dr. John O'Connor appeared at a meeting of the House Standing Committee on Environment and Sustainable Development. Ostensibly the committee is studying the tar sands and its impacts on water. They had invited Dr. O'Connor, according to author and reporter, Andrew Nikiforuk.
Dr. O'Connor managed to gain international attention three years ago by highlighting an increase in the rates of cancer in Fort Chipewyan, a small northern Alberta community that just happens to be downstream from the Athabasca oil sands development. The Alberta Health Service finally conducted a review into the situation, releasing a report earlier this year that shows that the rate of cancer is much higher in the Fort Chipewyan population than for other populations.
The Alberta Health Service study downplays any potential for a linkage between the increased rates of cancer in Fort Chipewyan and the tar sands development, by citing other studies: "Heavy metals and major ions co-occur with elevated levels of naturally occurring petroleum hydrocarbons and complex mixtures of naphthenic acids. As part of the mining process, the extraction of bitumen from the oil sands generates large volumes of process-affected waters containing elevated levels of naphthenic acids, salinity and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons. The waste water is stored in tailing ponds; release into the environment is prohibited." The report then says: "The Regional Aquatics Monitoring Program (RAMP) was established in 2000 to assess the health of rivers and lakes in the oil sands region. The 2005 RAMP report did not show negative impact of the Oil Sands development on the regional water system." It is of interest to note that the RAMP studies have been criticized for inaccuracy. One further study was then added: ""P. Timoney evaluated environmental contaminants in the area surrounding Fort Chipewyan. From 2001 to 2005, concentrations of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) rose within the sediment around Lake Athabasca. The report indicated that the treated drinking water in Fort Chipewyan was safe, but described high levels of arsenic, mercury and PAHs in fish, which is the main diet of many people in Fort Chipewyan, especially members of its Aboriginal communities. Dr. Timoney also quoted evidence from previous documents that there has been water contamination in the region since the 1960s, including evidence of oil spills and leaking. No evidence was available to determine how much of the measured chemicals were due to naturally occurring sources or how much resulted from human activity.
When Dr. O'Connor appeared before the House Committee, he outlined his experience as a family physician in Fort Chipewyan. He spoke of the dismissive treatment that occurred after he had finally gotten the attention of Health Canada, which later escalated with Health Canada lodging complaints against him with the College of Physicians and Surgeons in Edmonton. All complaints were dismissed, except for one - causing undue alarm in the community. Dr. O'Connor is still fighting that complaint. For his concern and diligence, Dr. O'Connor is threatened with the loss of his physician's licence. Dr. O'Connor also criticized the RAMP studies at the hearing. In response, the House Committee questioned Dr. O'Connor about his credentials and qualifications, particularly in comparison with the people who conducted peer reviews of the cancer study as well as how he would know whether or not there are no further studies being carried out by Alberta Health Services, under the guise of "testing his credibility." While outright condemnation was held in check by the Committee, there was a great deal of concern about Dr. O'Connor's having travelled with Greenpeace to Scandinavia. Dr. O'Connor told the Committee that he had gone to highlight the concerns of the people of Northern Canada have about "downstream illnesses."
A documentary, released in 2008, Downstream, tells the story of the people at Fort Chipewyan. In response, the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers said "Canada’s oil and gas industry recognizes that more work needs to be done to understand the health questions raised by residents of Fort Chipewyan. We acknowledge and respect their concerns and support the continued work of health leaders in determining the causes."
The report that Dr. O'Connor pushed for, earning him Health Canada's animosity shows that Fort Chipewyan, a community of about 1,200, had an increase in cancer that was 30% higher than other communities. Disturbingly, the report shows that 47 people had 51 cancers, more than the 39 cancers expected. The Alberta Health Service said that the situation warranted further investigation. "The increased number of cases of biliary tract cancers, cancers in the blood and lymphatic system and cancers of unknown primary seen in the most recent six years (2001-2006) compared to the years 1995-2000 of the investigation warrant closer monitoring of cancer occurrences in Fort Chipewyan in the years," the report says.
However, Alberta Health Service contradicted themselves in the same report, attributing the increase in cancers as "chance" resulting from either increased detection or a "real" increase for unknown reasons.
The Tar Sands are a billion dollar industry, and the stakes couldn't be higher. But extracting just one barrel of means releasing high amounts of carbon dioxide, and the left-over tailings, which sit in ponds, are contaminated with "toxic chemicals such as naphthenic acid and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAH)."
It is not clear why Dr. O'Connor has been vilified by the government. He documented cancer cases that are of concern and brought his concerns forward. On the other hand, groups such as Pembina Institute (a non-profit sustainable energy think tank based in Alberta) and another group, Ecojustice (formerly known as the Sierra Legal Defense Fund), made presentations in May 2009 to the same House Standing Committee on Environment and Sustainable Development that Dr. O'Connor was invited to earlier this month. "The two organizations presented evidence that oil sands development threatens Alberta's freshwater," according to the group Oil Sands Watch. Interestingly, the Standing Committee did not treat the non-profit groups in the same manner as it had Dr. O'Connor. During the hearing, the Pembina Institute told the hearing that it had withdrawn from the RAMP studies because of the problems associated with methodology.