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EcoChamber #15: Meet the woman at Ground Zero of the tar-sands fight (UPDATED YET AGAIN)

emily hunter

[Editor’s note: Every month, EcoChamber profiles an environmental activist from Canada or abroad in a series called “Eco-Warriors.” These profiles are part of a collection of stories Emily is working on for a book called The Next Eco-Warriors.]

Eriel Tchekwie Deranger climbs the flagpole in front of RBC on July 28, 2009. Photos courtesy Rainforest Action Network.

Eriel Tchekwie Deranger climbs the flagpole in front of RBC on July 28, 2009. Photos courtesy Rainforest Action Network.

[This post has been updated yet again, see below]

Imagine being afraid of the air your daughter breathes, watching your family burying their friends from rare cancers connected to toxic leakage, being unable to eat the plants or animals around you because they are sick, and swimming in your local lake has become dangerous to your health. This is not the picture of a future world gone ecologically mad. This is reality right now for Eriel Tchekwie Deranger, a 30-year-old Dene native living downstream from the tar sands of Alberta.

For Eriel and many other First Nations communities living in Fort Chipewyan, ground zero of the tar-sands fallout, this eco-nightmare is everyday life. But Eriel, coming from a long line of activists, is, as she says, “standing up to the madness.” Deranger is the Tar Sands Campaigner for the Rainforest Action Network.

Uncomfortable calling herself an eco-activist, much less an “eco-warrior,” Deranger considers her work with RAN more to be defending indigenous rights. She argues that what is happening with the tar sands is just a continuation in North America of the same old genocidal tactics: trampling on the basic needs of First Nations people in the name of economic prosperity. But whose prosperity is it? In the past, it was colonialists appropriating land and resources. Today, it is the air, water, food and livelihoods of Canada’s aboriginal communities that are being poisoned because of governments’ and corporations’ get-rich-quick scheme in dirty oil.

“Whether it be environmental activism, Indigenous rights activism or any kind of activism — it all comes down to fighting for our survival,” says Deranger.

And survival is what is at stake, she says. Because what has been touted as the world’s largest energy project is also the world’s most destructive engineering project. Andrew Nikiforuk, the crusading journalist who has been exhaustively chronicling the destructive effects of this project writes in his book Tar Sands: Dirty Oil and the Future of a Continent:

A business-as-usual case for the tar sands will change Canada forever. It will enrich a few powerful companies, hollow out the economy, destroy the world’s third-largest watershed, industrialize nearly one-quarter of Alberta’s landscape, consume the last of the nation’s natural gas supplies, and erode Canadian sovereignty.

Not to mention carve into the boreal forest (a larger carbon sink than the Amazon rainforest); inject toxins into the Athabasca River through tailing-pond leakage (the same chemicals, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, or PAH, that are associated with the rare cancers found in First Nations communities); make Canada one of the only countries to use nuclear power to increase fossil fuel development; and blacken the sky with increasing greenhouse gas emissions.

“We need a moratorium on new tar sands development. We can’t continue to expand. It’s absurd and idiotic to push forward,” says Deranger.

Deranger is willing to achieve that moratorium with any and all kinds of non-violent means that she can. From demonstrations, rallies, days of action, and her most recent protest: scaling to the top of a Canadian flagpole at the Royal Bank of Canada’s (RBC) Toronto headquarters , dropping a banner reading “Please Help Us Mrs. Nixon.com.” This appeal, by RAN and the Ruckus Society, was directed at Janet Nixon, wife of RBC CEO Gordon Nixon, asking her to lend her strong and influential voice with her husband to pull the bank’s massive investments in Alberta tar sands projects.

For Deranger, information is power and it is her hope that more Canadians, including influential Canadians like Nixon, will get the message through acts such as these.

“All of the little things slowly add up and it is my hope that more eyes will open and more people will stand up for what is right,” says Deranger.

All of us, as Canadians, have our hands in dirty oil development, whether we realize it or not. When we pump up for gas at Shell, we are funneling money to the largest stakeholder in the oil sands.By doing our banking at RBC, our money is being invested into the largest banker of the oil sands. Not to mention how much of our taxes are being diverted into our governments’ support for the tar sands.

UPDATE: A Government of Alberta spokesperson contacted This about EcoChamber #15, requesting corrections to this blog post. Specifically, the Alberta government denies any link between polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, or PAH, and cancer incidence in the Athabasca watershed; it also says there is no evidence of seepage from the Athabasca tailings ponds. With respect, we disagree with the government’s response and have not altered this post. However, in the interest of airing all perspectives, here is the text of the email we received:

Dear Emily Hunter and This Magazine:

We request a correction to incorrect information published by you today. In the story “EcoChamber #15: Meet the woman at Ground Zero of the tar-sands fight,” you make the statement that oil sands developments “inject toxins into the Athabasca River through tailing-pond leakage (the same chemicals, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, or PAH, that are associated with the rare cancers found in First Nations communities).”

Regarding PAHs and your claimed linkage to cancer downstream of oil sands, I refer you to the report “Cancer Incidence in Fort Chipewyan, Alberta, 1995-2006,” for the Alberta Cancer Board. Specifically relating to PAHs, please see page 35. In brief: PAHs are not linked to cancer cases downstream of oil sands and PAHs do occur naturally in the environment and yet cannot be found at levels higher downstream from oil sands than at areas undisturbed by oil sands development.

Regarding tailings ponds leakage into the Athabasca River, the river has been monitored since the 1970s and neither the Government nor any independent agency has detected increased contamination of the river. Furthermore, tailings ponds are constructed with groundwater monitoring and seepage capture facilities, and seepage is pumped back into the pond. If there is leakage, it would be into deep saline aquifers below the ponds, which would naturally contain the same contaminants as the tailings in the first place. Finally, given the characteristics of the soils, even at the very highest rate imaginable, it would take 50 years for tailings to move just two metres through the earth.

In short, no cancers attributable to PAHs have been found downstream of oil sands, and there is no evidence of tailings ponds seepage into the Athabasca River. Please correct your story.

Here is a link to the cancer report: http://www.albertahealthservices.ca/files/News/rls-2009-02-06-fort-chipewyan -study.pdf

David Sands, for the Government of Alberta.

We sought comment from environmental groups about the government’s request for changes to this blog post. A staff lawyer for Ecojustice provided this response:

I have read with interest the response from David Sands with the Government of Alberta to Emily’s blog.

In summary, Mr. Sands concludes his e-mail as follows:

“In short, no cancers attributable to PAHs have been found downstream of oil sands, and there is no evidence of tailings ponds seepage into the Athabasca River. Please correct your story.”

On the first point, Mr. Sands may be technically correct. I am not aware of any study that directly links a cancer case downstream from the oil sands to increased PAH’s. However, in making this statement, Mr. Sands relies on the 1995-2006 cancer incidence study recently completed by Alberta Health Services.

However, we should be clear about what that study did and did not find, and what it does say about PAH’s. The cancer incidence study did not directly link any cancer case in Fort Chipewyan to PAH’s. However, the study did find a higher than average overall cancer rate, higher than expected rates of cancers of the blood and lymphatic system, bilary cancers as a group and soft tissue cancers. The study specifically states that, “The study was not designed to determine the cause of the cancers experienced in Fort Chipewyan.” Mr. Sands cannot rely on this study to state that no cancers in Fort Chipewyan are attributable to elevated PAH’s. The study did not determine that.

Further, the study states, in Appendix 5:

“In November 2007, a report, funded by the Nunee Health Board Society and written by Kevin P. Timoney, evaluated environmental contaminants in the area surrounding Fort Chipewyan. From 2001 to 2005, concentrations of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) rose within the sediment around Lake Athabasca. The report indicated that the treated drinking water in Fort Chipewyan was safe, but described high levels of arsenic, mercury and PAHs in fish, which is the main diet of many people in Fort Chipewyan, especially members of its Aboriginal communities.”

It is clear that PAH’s in Lake Athabasca sediments and fish are elevated and increasing. The only thing that is not clear is the source of the elevated PAH’s.

Further, the study states in Appendix 5:

“The long-term impacts of oil sands in its early stages of the development since 1968 are not clear. A previous publication in 1980s indicated that Suncor permitted effluent discharge of oil and grease to the Athabasca River at 420 kg per day. Sometimes, operation problems resulted in excessive effluent discharge into the river. In addition to water-born effluents, the two oil sands extraction plants (Suncor and Syncrude) emitted massive amounts of particulates in the atmosphere.”

Therefore, it is possible that elevated PAH levels in sediments and fish downstream of the oil sands are attributable to oil sands operations, both current and historical.

Mr. Sands’ second statement that “there is no evidence of tailings pond seepage into the Athabasca River” is simply incorrect. The long-term seepage from the Suncor Tar Island Pond directly into the Athabasca River is well documented. In fact, in response, Suncor has undertaken over the past two years to drain and relocate that pond. In addition, Syncrude’s 2007 Groundwater Monitoring Report, submitted to the Alberta Government, documents tailings pond seepage into Beaver Creek and Bridge Creek, both tributaries of the Athabasca River.

I hope that this information is of some help to you.

Barry Robinson
Staff Lawyer
Ecojustice, Alberta Office

We’ll post here about any further developments related to this matter.

UPDATE 2: Friday, August 7 — We’ve had another letter in reponse to this blog post and the updates to it. Dr. John O’Connor, formerly of Fort Chipewyan, has spoken out about the tar sands before; we suggest reading this in-depth CBC Edmonton feature about Dr. O’Connor and his experience as a critic of tar sands development to find out more about him. He writes:

The response from the Alberta Government is no surprise.

Of course the Tailings Ponds leak–they have been for years, and the documentation comes from FOIP-ed material. The largest pond is estimated to leak at the rate of 5.7 million litres a day. Toxins such as PAHs, Arsenic, and Mercury, with an industrial origin, have been detected in appaling levels in the environment in and around Chip [Fort Chepewyan]. Fish are so affected that Health Canada issued  advisories in Nov 2007 that pregnant women and children stop eating fish from Lake Athabasca, and that kids should no longer play in the Lake, which had served for years as their playground. The advisories still stand. At exactly the same time, the AB govt was criticising Dr Kevin Timoney’s report that had found the toxins, claiming it was faulty science–when they were admitting they had not even read the report!! Try to reconcile that!

Neither the water nor the air are credibly monitored at all, and industry polices itself.

We also know that the above-named toxins can be directly linked with the health problems in Fort Chip. The Cancer Board does not state anywhere in its report that there is no link with cancer in Chip and the PAHs–the lead on the report, Dr Tony Fields, was careful to point out that the mandate of the Cancer Board was not to elucidate the origin of the cancers. PAHs, along with the other toxins, may well be the origin of cancer, and other health issues in Fort Chip. In other jurisdictions, the Precautionary Principle at least would have this industry being closely analysed, if not halted, on grounds of it being a possible or probable health hazard.

In Alberta, the sacred cow that is the Tarsands cannot be touched.

Alberta has been advised more than once to do a Baseline Health Study of peoples in the Chip area, and have ignored this advice. It is as if they are scared to do so. Maybe there is no connection between the Tarsands and health problems downstream! All I know is I was slammed in my quest to advocate for my patients in Chip, asking if the health issues there could be due to genetics, lifestyle, bad luck, or to the environmental changes seen in the community for years.

For Mr Sands to state that “no cancers attributable to PAHs have been found downstream of oil sands”, is at best a misrepresentation of the situation–there has never been any study to find the causes of cancer in Chip, and top of the list now must surely be industrial toxin exposure. For him to state that “there is no evidence of tailing ponds seepage into the Athabasca River”, flies in the face of evidence to the contrary. Even industry admits that the ponds were not built to last as long as they have–and they by their nature leak!

Alberta, do the right thing, and treat your downstream inhabitants fairly.

Dr. John O’Connor

UPDATE 3: Thursday, August 27 — We received another response to this blog entry, this one from Kevin Timoney. Dr. Timoney is the scientist who did the study in 2007 that found PAHs and other toxins in the Lake Athabasca sediments, water and fish. He requested that we preserve the colour formatting of the letter in order to clearly differentiate the sources of information. He writes:

Dear Ms. Hunter:

I have read your blog and the Alberta Government response to the blog. I offer some comments. The government’s statements are in red font and my response is in green font.

Dr. Kevin Timoney

Regarding PAHs and your claimed linkage to cancer downstream of oil sands, I refer you to the report “Cancer Incidence in Fort Chipewyan, Alberta, 1995-2006,” for the Alberta Cancer Board. Specifically relating to PAHs, please see page 35. In brief: PAHs are not linked to cancer cases downstream of oil sands and PAHs do occur naturally in the environment and yet cannot be found at levels higher downstream from oil sands than at areas undisturbed by oil sands development.

The Alberta Government’s objection to the link between PAHs and cancer is unscientific. The science is clear. Exposure to PAHs is linked to increased rates of cancer in humans and to a number of detrimental effects on fishes, including hatching alterations, cardiac dysfunction, edema, spinal curvature, and reduction in the size of the jaw and other craniofacial structures. Detrimental effects on birds have also been documented. Secondly, the government misrepresents the information on page 35 in the cancer incidence report (by Chen 2009). That report does not state that “PAHs are not linked to cancer cases downstream of oil sands”. Rather, that section of the report reviews various routes of PAH exposure from the literature. Thirdly, the statement “PAHs do occur naturally in the environment and yet cannot be found at levels higher downstream from oil sands than at areas undisturbed by oil sands development” is a half-truth at best. PAHs do occur naturally in the environment, that much is true. But it is false to state that PAHs do not increase in concentration downstream of development. They do and an upcoming scientific paper (in press) documents this fact. Fourthly, PAHs do not occur alone in the food supply of people downstream but rather as a suite of contaminants. Co-exposure to arsenic and PAHs, e.g., has been shown to increase rates of genotoxicity by 8 to 18 times. Fifthly, arsenic exposure is associated with human bile duct, liver, urinary tract, and skin cancers, vascular diseases, and Type II diabetes. Sixthly, the government neglected to note that the Chen report concluded that the number of cancer cases overall was 30% higher than expected in Fort Chipewyan. That same report found elevated rates of bile duct cancers, cancers of the blood and lymphatic system, leukemia, and soft tissue sarcomas. An earlier government report found elevated rates of type II diabetes, lupus, renal failure, and hypertension in Fort Chipewyan. Why the people of Fort Chipewyan appear to suffer increased rates of diseases may involve a variety of risk factors, but it is premature to state that contaminant exposure is not one of those factors.

Regarding tailings ponds leakage into the Athabasca River, the river has been monitored since the 1970s and neither the Government nor any independent agency has detected increased contamination of the river. Furthermore, tailings ponds are constructed with groundwater monitoring and seepage capture facilities, and seepage is pumped back into the pond. If there is leakage, it would be into deep saline aquifers below the ponds, which would naturally contain the same contaminants as the tailings in the first place. Finally, given the characteristics of the soils, even at the very highest rate imaginable, it would take 50 years for tailings to move just two metres through the earth.

The previous paragraph contains so many false statements that it is difficult to know where to begin. Contamination of river water, sediment, and wildlife have been documented numerous times by many authors from a variety of disciplines. Tailings ponds do leak. It is fairly well known how much they leak, what they leak, and where they leak. The government is aware that the ponds leak, has stated this fact in written correspondence, and has been aware for years. Escaped seepage is not into “deep aquifers” but rather into groundwater hydraulically connected with the Athabasca River. Seepage migration rates through the sands and silts are not slow. Tailings seepage has been detected in increased concentrations of salts and naphthenic acids in groundwater monitoring wells, in the Muskeg River as increased PAHs, and as increased concentrations of a number of metals in porewater of the Athabasca River.
In short, no cancers attributable to PAHs have been found downstream of oil sands, and there is no evidence of tailings ponds seepage into the Athabasca River. Please correct your story.

In short, the Alberta Government’s response to the blog is a denial of facts.

Emily Hunter Emily Hunter is an environmental journalist and This Magazine’s resident eco-blogger. She is currently working on a book about young environmental activism, The Next Eco-Warriors, and is the eco-correspondent to MTV News Canada.

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