Dr. John O'Connor (Physician, As an Individual):
Thank you very much, Mr. Chairman.
Honourable members, I'm very honoured to be here today and very glad of the opportunity to present my concerns about Fort Chipewyan. My name is John O'Connor, and I'm a family physician currently based in Nova Scotia. My practice is divided between Nova Scotia and northern Alberta.
Since 2001 I've been providing primary care services to Fort Chipewyan, which is a community about an hour's flight north of Fort McMurray, population 1,200, situated on the west end of the northern shore of Lake Athabasca. It's a very beautiful community, far off the beaten track, right on the edge of the Canadian Shield. When I came to the community initially I was told that to be accepted I had to gain the respect and trust of the elders. So I sat for hours and hours listening to them talk, and they're very articulate and eloquent. They told me about their concerns for their community. They told me about their past and their traditions; 80%-plus of the community subsist on traditional ways, so they hunt, fish, gather, and trap.
They talked about what they used to do, often spending days on the lake and on the river fishing, able to scoop water out of the lake and drink it, often spending two to three days on some of the many islands on the lake, boiling water for tea and soup, etc. They also talked about the plentiful fish and ducks, and especially muskrat. People who don't have a lot of money definitely use what they can from the land and no more than that.
They also described how things have changed in recent years, how the water quality had changed. They kept getting back to that: the water had a constant film of oil on it. Often the muskrat they looked for, they could not find, the population dwindling, and they would often find them dead in their lairs. As they skinned them they noticed the flesh was red, and as they said, it looked as if they'd been poisoned. The duck population had diminished. The most curious of all was their description of the changes in the fish and the increasing numbers of fish being pulled from the lake with tumours, deformities, crooked fins, missing parts, crooked spines, and bulging eyes. They would frequently also say that the fish tasted oily, and it wouldn't be fit for consumption.
So that was my background when I arrived in the community. I documented in my time there diagnoses that had been made prior to my arriving in the community, and in the years I was in the community I noticed a very strange situation seemed to be happening. I had a population of about 9,000 patients in my practice in Fort McMurray at the time. So I constantly compared the 1,200 people in Fort Chip with my 9,000 or so in Fort McMurray, and I really wasn't seeing anything of the types of illnesses or the numbers of illnesses that I was seeing....
The one that scared me the most was this cholangiocarcinoma. My father passed away in Ireland in 1993 from this illness. It occurs at a frequency of approximately 1 in 100,000. It's a very aggressive, nasty cancer. It's very difficult to diagnose, and often by the time it is diagnosed, it's too late. The treatment of it itself is almost as bad as the illness, and it is frequently just a palliative procedure.
The other illnesses, both malignant and non-malignant, were, in my experience and in discussions with colleagues in Fort McMurray, unusual, to say the least, for such a small population. I asked a simple question: was I seeing in this community something that was related to the lifestyle? Could it be a genetics issue? Was it simply bad luck? Or could it possibly have been linked to the environmental changes that were very real in the minds of people in Fort Chip?
The community was approached by Health Canada in April of 2006, and one of the very first actions of one of the physicians coming into the community was to come into the nursing station, fill his mouth with tap water, take a big swig, and turn to the Globe and Mail reporter and say, “There's nothing wrong with the water here in Fort Chip.” This was an insult. It triggered a lot of anger in the community.
They went on to say they were going to do a study of illnesses in the community, and they took boxes of deceased files to Edmonton. They told us we wouldn't see them until September.
About six weeks later they arrived back, telling us that everything was fine. They had actually given the information to the Alberta Energy and Utilities Board in Fort McMurray the week before, because that board was being asked questions about any potential health impacts of ongoing tar sands mining. The community was flabbergasted at this. Independent analysis of their findings at that time pointed out that actually what they found showed a 29% higher rate of cancer. The government did not accept this.
They also talked about arsenic and asked the community to send samples of moose meat and bulrushes to Edmonton for analysis. The community had actually heard about this in the newspapers in Fort McMurray a few days before, because industry had warned that arsenic might climb to about 500 times the upper limit of what's considered acceptable. At this point, the community did not trust that the government would come up with anything.
Nevertheless, a few months later samples were sent out for analysis, and of course they came back showing that the levels of arsenic were between 17 and 33 times the upper limit of normal, not 500. This was supposed to be a reassurance for the community.
In 2007 I got a large envelope in the mail from the College of Physicians and Surgeons in Edmonton, and it was not a gift. It was a list of complaints that Health Canada had laid about my activities in Fort Chip. They accused me of blocking access to files, billing irregularities, engendering a sense of mistrust in government in Fort Chip, and causing undue alarm in the community.
I responded to all of these charges, and the College of Physicians gave me the all-clear. A few weeks later the registrar of the college wrote to me saying that the issue of raising undue alarm still wasn't cleared, so I've actually been battling that since then.
In November of 2007, a few months later, Dr. Kevin Timoney, an ecologist in Edmonton, presented a study that he'd been commissioned to do by Fort Chip about their environment. It showed appalling levels of arsenic, mercury, and PAHs, on a par with or greater than what was found off the coast of Alaska after the Exxon Valdez went down. Ongoing analysis shows clearly that these chemicals, these toxins, have an industrial fingerprint. I'm not a scientist; I've read lots about what's documented, much of which comes from Alberta and federal government documentation.
The community has several times--probably four or five times--publicly proclaimed and written to Health Canada and the College of Physicians to tell them that they were never consulted about undue alarm and that they were never consulted, period. They've asked that this charge be withdrawn. They've actually asked Health Canada to fire their senior physician, who was in charge of all this, and this is all completely unsolicited by me. The Alberta Medical Association came out unanimously in support of my activity, saying that I have the right to be a patient advocate, which is all I'm doing.
In February of 2008 the Alberta Cancer Board started a cancer study of the community, a much more comprehensive study. They released their findings in 2009. The preamble told the community that the government had been wrong in 2006 to give the community the all-clear, that there was actually a 30% higher rate of cancer and, in some areas, rare cancers. They suggested ongoing monitoring over the next 5 to 10 years. The community is not accepting of this idea.
At this point, my feeling is that there's been enough evidence accumulated. We know the toxins identified in the environment in and around Fort Chip can cause the illnesses that are occurring in the community. There's been enough scientific discussion and agreement with what's going on. Surely, surely, it's now time--and I believe it's way beyond time--to do a comprehensive health study in this community.
I'm here purely as a simple family physician and a patient advocate. My only concern is the health of this community. I'm not a radical; I am, I guess, an activist now. I'm not political, although I've been accused of it. I'll carry whatever label you want to put on me. I'm a patient advocate, and I will be to the end, and I'm going to see this through no matter what it takes.
Thank you very much.
Mr. Andrew Nikiforuk (Author, As an Individual):
Thank you very much for the invitation.
I have written about oil and gas issues in Alberta for more than twenty years, and I am the author of Tar Sands: Dirty Oil and the Future of a Continent.
The tar sands, arguably the world's largest energy project, clearly illustrate the troubling nexus between energy and water. It takes water to produce energy, and it takes energy to move, pump, and treat water. Bitumen, a difficult and dirty hydrocarbon, requires more water for its production and upgrading than conventional light oil. As such, its water intensity signals the end of cheap oil as we know it. The bitumen mining process also creates unsustainable volumes of waste water, and I know the committee has heard much about this practice. The rapid and irresponsible development of Alberta's vast bitumen deposits has created several critical problems that I believe are diminishing Canada's reputation both at home and abroad.
Today I wish to draw to the House's attention four areas of concern: the creation of an acid rain problem in Western Canada, the problematic recycling of tailings water, the uncertain state of groundwater in bitumen-producing zones, and the case of Dr. John O'Connor.
Acid rain was once thought to be an environmental concern that only affected eastern Canada, but a 2008 paper by the air quality research division of Environment Canada predicted that some parts of western Canada in the vicinity of large SO2 sources, such as the tar sands or Fort McMurray, were already exceeding critical loads for acid rain. A critical load is an estimate of how much sulphur or nitrogen pollution a tree or lake can absorb before it damages or kills it.
The report called this prediction a concern because the release of acidifying emissions is projected to increase in the next decade in the tar sands. According to Alberta Environment, the province's oil and gas industry now produces a third of the nation's nitrogen oxide emissions and nearly a quarter of its sulphur oxide emissions. These two pollutants make acid rain.
By 2010, the province will produce more acidifying pollutants than any other part of Canada. Most of these emissions will blow into Saskatchewan. These pollutants, which can poison and sterilize forest soils, have already reached critical levels in Alberta and Saskatchewan. According to a 2008 report for the Canadian Council of Ministers of the Environment, upland forest soils downwind of the tar sands currently receive acid deposition levels greater than their long-term critical load. In other words, pollution from upgraders and steam plants is now damaging lakes and soils throughout western Canada.
In 2008 Julian Aherne, a researcher at Trent University, reported to the Canadian Council of Ministers of the Environment that nearly 10% of Alberta's mapped forest soils received acid deposition in excess of critical load. Last year a Saskatchewan study of 148 lakes within a 300-kilometre radius of the tar sands identified that the majority of these assessed lakes were sensitive or highly sensitive to acid rain.
Given these findings and predicted increases in acid emissions from the tar sands, why has Environment Canada not made western Canada's new acid rain problem a national priority? Why didn't the federal government set up a special agency, perhaps modelled after California's successful Air Resources Board, to manage both air pollutants and greenhouse gas emissions from the tar sands?
The committee has heard much about the unsustainable growth of tailings ponds for bitumen mining operations. They are among the world's largest impoundments of toxic waste. According to Alberta's Energy Resources and Conservation Board, these dams now occupy 120 square kilometres of forest land north of Fort McMurray.
Industry and government officials routinely defend their presence by arguing that 80% of the waste water is being recycled. What they fail to add is that the continuous recycling of tailing waste has concentrated pollutants in the water and made a bad problem much worse. According to a 2008 report by Eric Allen of Natural Resources Canada, the recycling of tailings water has increased the salinity of the ponds by 75 milligrams per litre since 1980.
Recent increases in hardness, sulphate, chloride, and ammonia have raised concerns about the corrosion of equipment used for bitumen extraction. Toxic chemicals of concern, of course, in the ponds include naphthenic acids, bitumen, ammonia, sulphate, chloride, aromatic hydrocarbons and trace metals such as arsenic and mercury. In other words, the recycling of tailings water has increased its toxicity, which in turn poses challenges for bitumen extraction, water consumption, and the reclamation of tailings ponds. The paper strongly suggests that all wastewater in the ponds be properly treated.
Steam plants, or steam-assisted gravity drainage, or in situ technology, typically heat up bitumen deposits to 240 degrees Celsius. They have the potential to impact groundwater over an area the size of Florida. In 1973, a report by the Alberta Research Council on the environmental impact of in situ technology recommended constant monitoring to prevent contamination of the groundwater supplies, which may be needed for domestic or industrial purposes. This wasn't done. Many steam plants now operate in an area south of Fort McMurray that is home to one of North America's largest freshwater aquifers, the Wiau Channel.
Neglect of groundwater, like the neglect of surface water in the Fort McMurray region, has been a persistent part of rapid tar sands development. In fact, the Alberta Energy Resources Conservation Board and Alberta Environment didn't release a draft directive on requirements for water measurement, reporting, and use for thermal in situ oil sands schemes until February of 2009. Last month the Council of Canadian Academies released an exhaustive report on the state of groundwater in Canada. A pointed section on the tar sands found regional mapping remained incomplete, that information collected by regulators was inconsistent, and that there was little or no data on cumulative effects of saline withdrawals for the steam plants.
For the record, it takes approximately three barrels of groundwater, fresh or saline, to make one barrel of bitumen. The report concluded that knowledge is lacking as to whether the aquifers of the Athabaskan oil sands region can sustain these groundwater demands and losses.
Last but not least, the case of Dr. John O'Connor raises serious questions about the state of water in the region as well as the dysfunctional nature of Canada's new petro state. Dr. O'Connor, a family physician, worked downstream from the world's largest energy project in Fort Chipewyan for nearly eight years. In 2006, he naively asked some valid questions about the number of rare cancers he uncovered in that aboriginal community. He did not point blame at the tar sands. He did not point blame at the pulp mills on the river. He did not point blame at agricultural run-off. He did not point blame at the abandoned uranium mines on Lake Athabaska. He merely asked for a proper health study.
Nevertheless, representatives of Health Canada, supported by representatives of Environment Canada and Alberta Health have accused this physician of causing undue alarm in the community. They threatened to take away his medical licence by filing a complaint through the College of Physicians and Surgeons of Alberta. For representatives of Health Canada to use a patient complaint process to vilify and persecute a family physician who simply advocated for his patients remains an unprecedented abuse of power in Canada.
This year, the Alberta Cancer Board vindicated Dr. John O'Connor. This study confirmed lymphoma and rare blood and bile duct cancers in the community. It also reported a 30% higher rate of cancers in the community in general than expected, yet Health Canada continues to shamefully persecute this physician and sully Canada's international reputation as a fair and democratic country.
Dr. O'Connor's story is now the subject of three separate international documentaries and scores of stories in the international press. It should be the subject of a public investigation by the Canadian Parliament.
Dr. John O'Connor:
There are two questions there.
First, on the studies that were done, there was the 2006 deceased-file analysis, which was incomplete. Alberta Health and Health Canada confirmed that. It didn't have complete data, yet they went ahead and gave the community the all-clear. The Alberta Cancer Board, out of the blue, in February 2008 launched a comprehensive cancer study, which I guess was more in-depth; it took a year to do. They concluded in February 2009 that the 2006 study was wrong to give the community the all-clear. In fact, there is a 30% higher rate of cancer in the community. Their terms of reference did not allow them to go beyond that, and their recommendation was for at least ongoing monitoring for the next five to ten years.
The other issue is that a comprehensive health study was actually suggested back in the late 1980s, early 1990s for the very first time, from what I can gather, by scientists who were asked to contribute to the northern river basins study. Andrew would probably know more about this than I do.
I believe at least a couple of times since then.... When I came into the community and saw what I was finding, I was quite concerned. I joined what I didn't realize then was a chorus of people calling for a comprehensive--we were calling it a baseline--health study. In fact, that opportunity is long gone, because we don't have anything near the baseline.
There is no plan, as far as I know, to do any further studies in the community, whether they're cancer related or an overall analysis of the current health of the community. I can't explain why. It's very puzzling.
Mr. Andrew Nikiforuk:
I have a number of suggestions. My critique of the rapid development of the tar sands, really, has to do with the manner in which it has taken place. We have developed this resource too fast. It is a very critical, very strategic resource for this country as well as for North America. However, we are developing it at such a rate that we are creating environmental problems that we do not yet have the technology to solve.
In terms of solutions, my solutions get about as radical as the recommendations of former Premier Peter Lougheed: slow down. Where is the fiscal accountability for this project? The rapid development of this project has been driven by low corporate taxes and by low royalties in Alberta. That's not coming from me. That's coming from the U.S. Council on Foreign Relations in their most recent report on oil sands development. What problems are we solving globally by rapidly developing this resource? None. Again, according to the U.S. Council on Foreign Relations, we are solving no global problems. We are making no place more secure. We're simply putting more bitumen and synthetic crude on the market.
I think what former Premier Peter Lougheed said--and the man is a true conservative--was let us slow down. Let us establish real fiscal accountability with this resource. Let us do one project at a time. And let us deal with the environmental and public health issues that rapid development has created.
We have approved, since 1996, more than 100 tar sands projects. Those are mining projects and steam plants. And we have done that without adequate safeguards. We have not been proactive. You cannot exploit a resource as carbon intensive, as water intensive, and as capital intensive as bitumen without making consummate investments in renewable energy resources across this country. Now we are stuck with the stigma of producing dirty oil, and I would argue that it is a fair description. It is one that we have brought upon ourselves, because as a people, we have not been proactive.
Perhaps the last thing I would say here is that we are repeating the mistakes of the past. We are natural resource producers and developers. That's what we do. That's what Canadians have always done. We cut down trees, we dig up rocks, and we export them. We don't add value to them. We exported furs to Europe. We did not export fur hats. Why are we exporting raw bitumen now? That is where all the money and all the value is to be made and created. Again, this is another position of former Premier Peter Lougheed: add value to the resource.
So we have failed in a number of areas. We have opportunities now to address these. But I doubt we will until, first, we have a national conversation about the pace and scale of development in the tar sands, and, second, we impose some fiscal accountability on this resource, which we have not done yet.