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Emily Atkin

Plagued With High Cancer Rates, One Tar Sands Community’s Eight Year Quest For Answers

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"Plagued With High Cancer Rates, One Tar Sands Community’s Eight Year Quest For Answers"

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Dr. John O’Connor can’t forget the cancer patients he’s seen. The quiet school bus driver who tried to hide his jaundice from his wife. The traditional elderly man who came to the examining room “yellow, almost green” and died the day after his operation. The Lebanese immigrant, deeply in love with his partner who lost her uncle nine years ago to the same disease, given less than a year to live. As the physician for the beautiful, remote First Nations community of Fort Chipewyan, Alberta, O’Connor wants to know why he’s seen so much suffering.

“Why should I see such illness in such a stunning, out of the way community?” he wondered. “It makes absolutely no sense. The rate of smoking is lower there. People walk everywhere … There’s no processed foods in their diets. It just doesn’t make sense.”

It was 2006 when O’Connor first went public with his claims of unprecedented cancer rates in Fort Chipewyan. What followed were eight long years that saw O’Connor questioned, threatened, and forced to move, all because he publicly voiced his suspicions that those rates might be caused by pollution from large tar sands reserves extracted just 150 miles upstream.

Now, he is still wondering why the government hasn’t yet studied the cause for the high cancer rates, why they recommended the oil industry take part in the health study process, and, perhaps most importantly, why it has taken so long to provide updated information regarding the cancer rates to the ailing community.

“It is nauseatingly disgusting, what’s going on,” O’Connor said. “This community has been totally brushed aside.”

‘Totally Unprecedented’

In March 2006, CBC News published its first article about O’Connor and Fort Chipewyan, known locally as Fort Chip.

“Dr. John O’Connor, a physician and medical examiner for the remote northern community, says the population of 1,200 has been disproportionately affected by a high number of both rare and common cancers,” the article read. “Elders in the community say they didn’t see these kinds of diseases until the oil industry started production near their homes on the southwestern tip of Lake Athabasca. O’Connor said he suspects oil and gas activity may play a role.”

Soon after, the public and the media began putting pressure on the government to study the cancer rates further. If pollution from tar sands production was indeed causing these high cancer rates as O’Connor suspected, people wanted to know. After all, Fort Chip is only 150 miles downstream from Canada’s largest tar sands reserve. If cancer was on the rise there, the same could be true for other communities.

Then, in what many considered a surprising turn, the country’s lead agency for public health filed four complaints of misconduct against O’Connor, including causing “undue alarm” and “engendering a sense of mistrust” in the Canadian government. The College of Physicians and Surgeons of Alberta was asked to investigate. O’Connor risked losing his medical licence.

“From what I’ve heard off the record, from members of the medical community, this [was] totally unprecedented,” Andrew Nikiforuk, a Canadian journalist who has been writing about the oil and gas industry for nearly 20 years, said during a parliamentary hearing on O’Connor’s now-famous situation.

Media attention swirled around O’Connor in Alberta while the charges were being processed. So he moved to Nova Scotia, “to escape all the craziness.” He set up his own practice there, and a friend, Dr. Liam Griffin, took over physician services at Fort Chip.

But public pressure over O’Connor’s case would not cease, and the Alberta Cancer Board finally conducted a study on O’Connor’s claims in 2009. In that study, the Board confirmed that there were, indeed, high cancer rates in Fort Chip. O’Connor was absolved of the charges and moved back to Alberta — but not without scars from the experience.

“The feeling, it’s hard to describe,” O’Connor said. “That was two years and eight months of my life that I would not want to repeat.”

Three Options

The results of Alberta Cancer Board’s study were staggering. Cancer rates in Fort Chip were 30 percent higher than expected. There were elevated rates of blood cancer, lymphatic cancer, and soft tissue cancers. The high rates were primarily seen in the last six years of the 12-year study, a finding the Board said should warrant “closer monitoring of cancer occurrences in Fort Chipewyan in the coming years.”

The Board was not asked to look into the cause of the cancer. It did, however, offer three potential reasons for the increased rates.

First, O’Connor could be what is called a “Texas Sharp Shooter” — like someone who randomly shoots his gun at the side of a barn and draws a bulls-eye around the bullet clusters. In this case, O’Connor’s observations of cancer would be a coincidence.

Second, O’Connor could just be a really good at detecting cancer. Maybe, before O’Connor came to the community, Fort Chipewyan’s doctors just weren’t as skilled at recognizing disease. Maybe there was always cancer in Fort Chip.

And the third option the board offered was that the people of Fort Chipewyan could be at higher risk of developing cancer due to heightened exposure to carcinogens that may have leached into their water from tar sands and uranium extraction.

O’Connor believes the answer is option three. For him, knowing the history of Fort Chip before and after tar sands expansion, it is just common sense.

Warning Signs

Though O’Connor became Fort Chip’s physician in 2006, he began visiting in 2000. “Like every or any aboriginal community, you don’t just barge in and expect people to trust you right away,” he said. “I kind of represent the invader, the white guy. They sort of have to get a measure of you before they open up.”

During his visits, he would hear about the old Lake Athabasca, the clear Lake Athabasca. Twenty years ago, Fort Chip residents would draw their drinking water from it, bathe in it, think nothing of dunking a cup over the side of a canoe during fishing trips. A bounty of big walleye and pickerel made the lake a fishing industry for two months of the year and residents would earn extra money sending the fish to markets in the Eastern United States.

But then things started to change. “Every one of them described the same thing,” O’Connor said. “The water was constantly — there was a sheen of oil on it. It didn’t taste right. It tasted bad. They couldn’t boil it. They couldn’t use it for anything at all.”

The fish started to change, too. Fort Chip elder “Big Ray” Ladouceur said he began to see “pushed in faces, bulging eyes, humped back, crooked tails.” A friend caught a jackfish with two lower jaws. The community eventually decided to send two boxes of the fish to Canada’s Fish and Wildlife agency for study. At the last minute, the boxes were never sent.

“I think they did that on purpose,” Ladouceur said. “They didn’t want to get the feedback … They’re scared.”

Fort Chip did receive some feedback anyway in 2007, a few months after O’Connor’s self-exile to Nova Scotia. Health Canada released a study that said the fish abnormalities were not necessarily related to water pollution or toxic discharges. Even so, the study recommended residents limit fish consumption and caution children against playing in the surrounding waters, due to higher-than-expected levels of mercury, aluminum, and selenium.

Water surrounds Fort Chip, making it nearly impossible to avoid. The community is only reachable by plane, save for two months out of the year when the ice can serve as a road for vehicles. The portion of Lake Athabasca that encompasses the community is located 150 miles downstream from the Athabasca tar sands, one of three large deposits that helps make Alberta home to the second largest oil reserve in the world after Saudi Arabia.

Out of those three regions, the Athabasca tar sands are the biggest. It is also the only large tar sands field that is suitable for surface mining. There are several active and abandoned uranium mines that surround the lake, which O’Connor believes could also be contributing to the elevated cancer rates.

It’s not hard to believe that the tar sands may be causing some detrimental pollution. The Primrose tar sands project near Cold Lake, Alberta has been leaking for at least the past ten months, though Canadian officials acknowledge they’re not sure when those leaks started. In northeast Alberta, scientists have found the tar sands deposits are surrounded by a nearly 7,500-square-mile ring of mercury. And at least six families, including children, have abandoned their homes in Peace River, Alberta, citing health concerns from heavy oil emissions. The Alberta Energy Regulator recently confirmed that those families’ illnesses were likely caused by the tar sands.

A Seat At The Table

Dr. O’Connor concedes that he does not know if it’s pollution from the tar sands that is causing cancer in Fort Chip and that’s precisely the reason why, for the last eight years, he has been asking for the Canadian government to conduct a comprehensive health study that could pinpoint the cause.

That study seemed like it just might happen back in September 2009 when Health Canada and Alberta Health agreed to set up a joint federal committee, called the Physician Advisory Committee (PAC), to set the terms. O’Connor says things ultimately fell apart, though, when the chair of the PAC — Dr. Brent Friesen, the medical officer of health at Alberta Health Services — suggested that a clause be added giving the tar sands industry an integral role in management and oversight of the study.

The Canadian government is not allowed to conduct studies on First Nation communities without their consent, and Fort Chip residents would not give their blessing to a study overseen by the oil industry, O’Connor said. Alberta Health confirmed that the Friesen and other members of the PAC had proposed industry representation in the study, but added that it was not meant to be a requirement for it to move forward.

“Dr. Friesen did not, in any way, insist upon industry representation as a condition of the study proceeding,” Alberta Health senior communications advisor Shannon Evans said via e-mail. “Though the proposal did suggest the inclusion of industry representation … neither Dr. Friesen nor other Physician Advisory Committee members insisted upon this industry representation as a condition of the study proceeding.”

On the other side, Chief Allan Adam of the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation said his community specifically rejected the health study proposal because the oil industry had to be involved.

“It was a condition that was put on the [study] and that’s why it was rejected by the First Nations,” Chief Adam said.

Health Canada, the other government agency spearheading the PAC, declined to answer questions about industry involvement in a health study for Fort Chip residents. Instead, Health Canada spokesperson Judith Gadbois-St-Cyr said Fort Chip residents “have publicly stated they do not support proceeding with that study,” not because of industry involvement but “because [the study] would not focus solely on cancer, but instead be a comprehensive health study that would include cancer as a key element.”

When pressed to explain why Health Canada would not address industry ties to a study, Gadbois-St-Cyr said the agency’s official position was that it was “not their place” to participate in a “he said she said” argument over why Fort Chip residents did not want a health study, and noted that Alberta Health had a bigger role.

Both Chief Adam and Dr. O’Connor have alleged that Friesen has unethical ties to the oil industry, including doing consulting work for the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers (CAPP) and the Oil Sands Community Alliance (OSCA).

Alberta Health confirmed that Friesen once sat on the Health Sub-Committee of OSCA, an industry group with a focus on community impacts of the oil sands, but only to “ensure that [Alberta Health] — as the health service delivery organization — is properly represented in discussions pertaining to prevention, treatment and health services needs in the area,” Evans said. Evans denied accusations that Friesen ever did any consulting work for CAPP.

Those in Fort Chip are not convinced. “We’re doing our analysis on Dr. Friesen and we’re going to expose him,” Chief Adam said. “We’re going to bring all of this into perspective, but give us some time.”

Still Fighting For Answers

Last week, Alberta Health officials released updated numbers for cancer rates in Fort Chip. According to those numbers, the community has slightly increased rates of biliary tract cancer, cervical cancer, and lung cancer. Everything else, they said, is normal.

The numbers report was not the comprehensive health study Fort Chip residents are looking for — just an update on how much cancer is in the area compared to other areas of Alberta. Even so, Alberta Health’s Chief Medical Officer of Health, Dr. James Talbot, told the community that none of their increased cancer rates are likely due to pollution from the tar sands industry and can easily be explained by other factors.

Not everyone is buying it.

“Anyone who knows the slightest bit of mathematics knows that with a population as small as Fort Chipewyan, the statistics are not going to work,” said Dr. David Schindler, a University of Alberta limnologist who has researched how the tar sands effect freshwater systems. “The nature of epidemiological studies is that if you’re studying 10,000 or 100,000 people, you can say something is significant. You can’t do that with less than 1,000 people.”

Schindler says his experience with studying how the oil industry pollutes water — particularly Lake Athabasca and Fort Chipewyan — has proved to him that the Canadian government is disinterested in making the link, if there is one, between tar sands and cancer. He claims that after his research found the industry was adding a significant number of pollutants to Lake Athabasca, the government and the oil industry underwent repeated attempts to prove his studies were flawed.

“It’s a standard government and industry tactic to cast doubt on things and then continue to do what you’re familiar with, and you don’t have to make any decisions,” he said. “It’s interesting, because if they find no chemicals that can be linked to the oil sands, then it exonerates the oil sands completely. But no one seems interested in answering that question.”

Both Alberta Health and Health Canada have stated that they remain committed to funding a comprehensive health study on the cancer rates. But at this point, Fort Chip residents don’t even want them to.

“Based on the specifications that both Health Canada and Alberta Health put on they study, that industry wants to have a say in it, we said no,” Chief Adam said. “We can’t trust them … We need a completely independent report.”

Not Just A Canadian Concern

Fort Chip’s cancer debacle is beginning to attract the attention of some lawmakers — but they’re not from Canada.

U.S. Sens. Barbara Boxer (D-CA) and Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI) last month invited Dr. O’Connor to Washington D.C., to testify on his experience working on Fort Chip. They’re now calling for the U.S. government to study how America’s public health would be affected by the increased extraction and processing of tar sands oil, particularly via the controversial Keystone XL pipeline. The pipeline will leak, after all. All pipelines do.

And the transport of tar sands isn’t the only thing that should have Americans concerned. In February, U.S. Oil Sands received its final permits to begin tar sands extraction in Utah’s Unitah Basin and other states have expressed interest in exploring the possibility, as well.

For the people of Fort Chip, however, simply being concerned is no longer an option.

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