Come On In, The Water’s Fine

Monday, March 05, 2007
Something is happening in the tiny remote northern town of Fort Chipewyan and the residents aren’t happy about it. To be honest, that’s putting it mildly. Over the course of a generation, according to the citizens of Ft. Chip and its doctor, the town is being poisoned and cancer is running rampant throughout the area, attacking both young and old alike – it doesn’t discriminate. The residents can tell you exactly what the problem is…water.

Shelagh Rogers, host of Sounds Like Canada on CBC Radio, had an interesting segment on health concerns in Fort Chipewyan this morning which peaked my interest. The town gets its water from the Athabasca River, the main tributary of Lake Athabasca. As the Oilsands project expands down the river, as well as other associated industries, the lake and river are becoming increasingly contaminated and killing off the small town of 1200.

Dr. John O’Connor is the town’s doctor. He’s based in Fort McMurray and flies into the remote northern town every week to treat its residents. He claims that he’s noticed an increase in liver and colon cancers, and cancer of the blood, and whole families that have been stuck with lupus. Cholangiocarcinoma, a “rare and deadly cancer of the bile duct, has been found (according to Dr. O’Connor) in “at least three residents of Fort Chipewyan, and likely another two have died of the disease within the past five years”. If his claims are true, this should be raising huge red flags with the government (federal and provincial) as there should “be only one case for every 100,000 people and none at all for a community the size of Fort Chipewyan”. Other rural northern communities Dr. O’Connor visits have not seen the increase in the occurrence of cancer and other rare diseases. Why is that? Simple…those communities don’t get their drinking water from the Athabasca River.

Elders in the town claim that the water and wild meat, mainly moose, don’t taste the same as they used to. Both the likely result of pollution being dumped by the oil and gas companies in northern Alberta. It is also thought that the pulp and paper industry could be a contributor as well as the now shut down “Uranium City” on the Saskatchewan border (a mine which shut down years ago but contamination continues). The residents of Fort Chipewyan are not the only ones who use the water from the Athabasca River for drinking. The local wildlife also uses it. Many residents (most Aboriginal) of northern communities rely heavily on wild meat (e.g.: moose and deer) to fill their diets as most food has to be flown in. Many townsfolk have freezers full of moose meat cut up and ready to be eaten. If the wildlife has been contaminated by the river’s water, the residents now face a double whammy – risks from drinking the water themselves or ingesting the toxins and pollutants through the meat they hunt/eat. Many residents in the town are paying (and no doubt paying huge amounts) to have bottled water flown in and some have gone so far as to say that the government should be picking up the cost. Northern First Nations groups are calling on the government to put a halt to any further expansion of the Alberta Oilsands until a full impact assessment can be done, including the effects on the land, the water and the people.

According to one article I read, “…Suncor discharges just under 20 kilograms of oil and grease each day into the Athabasca, a large and fast-flowing river. Under provincial regulations, it is allowed to discharge up to 150 kilograms each day.” Personally I feel that 20 kilograms is way too much and we need stronger regulations and legislation surrounding oil/gas, mining, and other industries in order to protect not only people but wildlife and the environment. The Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers claims that it “…continues to comply with the government’s environmental regulations”. Pierre Alvarez, the president of the CAPP stated “When good science is brought to bear, we will respond to it.” That’s fine and dandy but what about being proactive rather than merely reactive? Take a leadership role, and go beyond the requirements put in place by government. And how adequate is our current legislation? Can anyone say Kyoto? Stephen Harper is an Alberta boy and everyone knows how much revenue the oil and gas industry generates for Alberta and Ottawa. Why would he dare challenge that? It would be nice if, for a change, we had a Prime Minister who was willing to grow a pair of balls and stand up to the petroleum industry rather than bow down at its feet. We haven’t had a good Prime Minister since the days of P.E.T. (oh, I’m going to get flack for that…especially from my fellow westerners…)

For the residents of Fort Chip, something needs to be done and done fast. However, for many its already too late and the impact on the community is irreversible. As Ivy Simpson, a former resident of Fort Chipewyan who was stricken with cervical cancer at the unlikely age of 17 stated “There’s going to be a bunch of rich people, and a bunch of sick people”.

First Nations Call for Oilsands Moratorium
Oilsands-area hamlet supports whistleblower MD
Whose hands are in the pockets of Alberta Cancer Board?
Why is Cancer Sweeping Tiny Fort Chipewyan?


Anonymous said...

I'm not defending anything related to oilsands, but you must bear in mind that lots of petroleum oozes into the river naturally as it flows through the tar sands. Always has, always will.

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