Too little regulation, too much risk: An argument against the oil sands

In August 2013, the author paddled down the Athabasca River from Fort McMurray to Fort Chipewyan with 9 other paddlers from Canada and the United States to see impacts of the oil sands on communities downstream.

I am responding to the article in the Vancouver Observer, “There is a way out: Preventing oil sands health tragedy from becoming Canada's permanent legacy”, October 2, 2013, written by Courtney Howard, an emergency room physician, mother, and board member of the Canadian Association of Physicians for the Environment (CAPE). While I have great respect for CAPE and their accomplishments, and agree with most of what Dr. Howard has to say, I do not think she goes anywhere near far enough. Like Dr. Howard, I have begun my own investigations into the oil sands.

The reason that Dr. Howard found virtually no clinical studies by government concerning the reportedly high rates of cancer and other diseases in communities affected by the oil sands industry is because it would appear that that is the way the federal and Alberta governments and the oil industry want it.  I interviewed Dr. John O’Connor, chief medical officer for Fort McKay and Fort Chipewyan in August 2013. His initial concerns of high incidence of cancer and other diseases in Ft Chip in 2006 were responded to by both federal and Alberta governments with complaints against him to the Alberta College of Physicians for creating “undue alarm.” 

After the College dropped their investigation of these complaints, Dr. O’Connor was involved in planning health studies with Alberta Health first in Fort Chipewyan and then in Fort McKay. Both studies were cancelled unilaterally by Alberta Health. In the Ft Chip case, Alberta Health wanted the oil sands industry involved in the study. The community of Ft Chipewyan felt that this was a conflict of interest and refused. As a result, Alberta Health cancelled the study. In the Ft McKay case, Dr. O’Connor does not know why the study was cancelled as Alberta Health personnel would not return phone calls. 

In 2009,  Alberta Health did conclude a cancer study on the Ft Chip population which their officials claimed showed no cause for concern.  In 2010, the study was peer reviewed by Dr. Gina Solomon, currently Deputy Secretary for Science and Health at the California Environmental Protection Agency. She concluded that the rates of lymphomas and leukemia were 3 times higher than expected in Fort Chipewyan, and that the rates of bile duct cancers were seven times higher than expected. She also pointed out that these specific cancers have been shown to be linked to exposure to oil and petrochemical products.   Amid continued reports of health concerns, a new three-year health study in Fort Chipewyan overseen by the University of Calgary is now being initiated.  

For years, Dr David Schindler, a University of Alberta aquatic ecologist, has been saying that government environmental monitoring of the oil sands has been inadequate. In studies published in 2009 and 2010 by University of Alberta scientists Erin Kelly, David Schindler, and others, there is strong evidence of important and growing environmental contamination of the Athabasca River by the oil sands. They found that high levels of air pollution are falling to the snow-covered ground in winter in a 50 km radius of the Suncor and Syncrude upgraders. The toxins are undoubtedly being flushed into the Athabasca River and its tributaries by meltwaters in the spring.   

They characterized the resulting contamination of the Athabasca River as “the equivalent of a major oil spill every spring”.  Of course, on top of this is the leakage from the toxic lakes resulting from oil sands projects. According to Schindler, it is 99% certain that the toxic water is leaching into aquifers, ground water and the Athabasca River.    

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