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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tarsads, shut that industry down



Points to be made:

-Industry and Government have tried to release studies on cancer.  The first nations (and Dr. O'Connor) have refused them and decided not to release them because they "hurt" their case AGAINST the oil sands.  If you want the real meat and potatoes of this story, then go investigate the open-air uranium cakes on the shores of Lake Athabasca, not the oil sands.

-David Schindler and team have done some great work, but they aren't doing things right.  Industrial and government agencies stick to VERY tight sampling protocols, while Schindler and his team employ the "grab a sample of everything and anything, even if the sample is contaminated, and we might get a result that proves something!"  As an example, if you're sampling snow for contaminates and your sampler takes a sample of snow with a single leaf in it, your results are now OFF THE CHARTS.  I've seen the debates between Schindler and other folks first hand.  On one side is logical debate, on the other a robot saying OIL SANDS BAD (plz fund me).

Go to and compare the numbers to those in somewhere like.. say.. Vancouver, or Kelowna, or Kamloops, or Edmonton.  Fort McMurray, Fort McKay and Fort Chipewyan have better air quality 99% of the time.

Going as far as to say "No one drinks the water anymore" is pure BS.  I visit Fort Chipewyan at least once a year and have friends in the community.  They still drink the water, and eat the fish.  I DRINK THE WATER AND EAT THE FISH.  People still buy commercially caught Walleye, just not in huge numbers because it's freaking expensive!

As far as bankruptcy goes, no.  The companies are forced to pay into bonds that hold money for reclamation efforts.  The First Nations will not be left hanging.  Infact, the first nations are currently looking into building their own Oil Sands plant.  The Giant Mine is a fiasco, the oil sands aren't on that level of pollution.  It's just taking sand out of oil, they aren't contributing to Acid Rock Drainage and other issues that cause HUGE environmental impacts.  Sure there is land impacts, but like you mentioned, they are being reclaimed.

That all being said, I am disappointed that the First Nations request for a buffer zone around Moose Lake wasn't approved.  They should have that kind of space and be able to protect their traditional lands.

BUT!  To say their community is so polluted they can't drink water, eat fish, or breathe, is complete BS.  As a resident of Vancouver you should be MUCH MORE worried about your water, animals and fish in BC than you should be in Alberta.  Look at the science to back it up, don't listing to stories.

It is high time BC and the rest of Canada get the truth, and not some slander from a fly-by-night canoeist traveling up the river.

Response to Johnny Bee

Johnny, I am not going to respond to your insults of one of Canada's most decorated scientists, nor of a Canadian doctor whose only sin is to care about his patients. As to your comment about drinking water,  I clearly stated that no one drinks the Athabasca RIVER water, while you are talking about Lake Athabasca water, which is used in Ft Chip. They have a state-of -the-art water treatment system, and it is a huge body of water fed by many rivers, yet a lot of people are still nervous about the water. But yes, they do drink it. I drank it, too. Of course, you and I are not there year round, so you can stop with the holier-than-thou attitude. As to the comment about money being paid into bonds for future reclamation, you are right. Estimates I have seen suggest the amount is not enough to do anything significant. But it is good PR to be able to say that you have put money away for that. A more realistic approach would be to actually DO the reclamation. Almost none has been done, and much of what has been is the easiest parts, i.e. NOT wetlands.

This information needs to get in front of every Canadian! We have not been hearing about these peer reviewed, scientific findings or the snowmelt/water/fish quality issues in the mainstream Canadian media. These specific aboriginal rights violations do not get through to us in the "noise" of so many outstanding grievances and assaults on our democracy by this current Federal (Harper) administration. To hear of such blatant conflict of interest within the Alberta administration as well just highlights how our government has been reading from the Corporatocracy playbook south of the border. Our oil and gas/environmental conflicts and revolving door between government and industry looks just like Monsanto and the food sustainability issues. People, we have to give them a new playbook that doesn't include selling out our health and future sustainability. Share this info and discuss it widely.

Response to Johnny Bee

"from a fly-by-night canoeist traveling up the river"  It appears you didn't have the courtesy to look up the author...  

Eli Pivnick, PhD, is a former research scientist for Agriculture Canada and currently a high school teacher in Kamloops, BC.


I'd say he's more credible than a fly-by-night canoeist. Your shameful attempts to discredit him show the true intent of (or more likely conflict of interest) behind your comment.

Too little regulation, too much risk

When one side refuses to: admit Risk, take reasonable steps to monitor and reduce that Risk and spends Millions of Tax deductible and even actual Tax dollars (current Harper ads) to greenwash their non-efforts and trash their opponents, Compromise is Fruitless!
It takes two to compromise and Big Money and Harper/Alberta Big Government have assumed the position of ideologues. Anything contrary to their position is anti-Canadian and actions of eco-terrorists. The sad thing is that they are creating this polarization of the Country and stifling dialogue and thus solutions.

It scares me to live downstream

I agree with Dr. Pivnick's assessment.  The oil sands industry and Alberta have plans to strip mine 4,000 square kilometers and steam out another 40,000 sq km.  I don't know how many of you have seen strip mining but it has never been contemplated on this scale anywhere.  The toxic silty tailings from the mines are accumulating in lakes at a rate of 1.5M barrels or more daily.  These lakes leak into the ground.  The steam injection is no cleaner, it is simply more hidden and it will take another few years for the damage to become so apparent that Alberta can no longer ignore it.  By then the environmental damage will be too late to control or remediate.  The pitiful reclamation fund is a joke, hardly enough to reclaim  a small strip mine.  I have watched the tar sands industry since its inception and know many long-term oil sands employees, many aboriginal residents, and many of the scientists involved.  I am witnessing the plunder of northern Alberta for the enrichment of the cities in the south, nothing less.

Dr. Pivnick article

Perhaps the critics of Dr. Pivnick's article should think a bit about building and fire codes. We, in the construction industry,do not abide by building codes in order to put out fires and 




Perhaps the critics of Dr. Pivnicks article should study the rationale for fire and building codes. The primary purpose of such codes is prevention. Just look at Bangladesh clothing factories.

Aside from the serious greenhouse gases emitted from the bitumen sands extraction and use the issue of contamination should be addressed from a preventative perspective. We in  the  construction industry do not proceed until all rigorous code requirements are met. The extraction industry should not proceed until rigorous codes, enforcement and tough penalties are in place. Then the critics can voice their opinions.

Allan in Toronto