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Oil Versus Water

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Issue: 48 Section: Original Peoples Geography: West Alberta, Fort Chipewyan Topics: water, tar sands, Dene, Cree

October 15, 2007

Oil Versus Water

Toxic water poses threat to Alberta's Indigenous communities

by Kim Petersen

Children play by the shore of Lake Athabasca in Fort Chipewyan, Alberta during a canoe race. Residents of Fort Chipewyan have seen rising rates of rare cancers since tar sands mining began upstream along the Athabasca River. Photo: Dru Oja Jay

Alberta is replete with precious oil. Recovery of that oil from the tar sands, however, is putting another precious resource at risk: water. Dene and Cree First Nations people live close to and in the midst of the largest tar sand deposit in the Athabasca River region and oil extraction is harming their water supply.

The recoverable oil reserves in Alberta's tar sands are so bountiful that they vie with oil reserves in Saudi Arabia and Venezuela for top status. Compared to Saudi Arabia, however, the oil extraction process is very expensive. What is extracted is bitumen, a form of crude oil, mixed with clay and silica that must be refined to produce a barrel of oil. Current high oil prices make the extraction and refinement of bitumen very profitable.

Scientists at the University of Toronto and the University of Alberta have warned that the excessive water demand will result in the disappearance of the Athabasca River, having a devastating impact on the largest boreal delta in the world---a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

First Nations communities who live along and depend on the Athabasca River are also at possible risk from tar sands operations. There have been reports of increased illness and signs of toxic chemicals affecting wildlife.

Some elders with Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation (ACFN) are concerned with the environmental monitoring of the Cumulative Environmental Management Association (CEMA), an NGO that is supposed to represent "all levels of government," First Nations and other stakeholders.

ACFN elder Pat Marcel said that CEMA was "dead" in the eyes of the elders because the Athabasca River is not being protected. "The corporations have to deal with us. We've got environmental agreements with every one of them," Marcel said.

"If you're not able to honour the treaty that we signed," said Marcel, "we might as well do away with that treaty and you can get your scrap of paper back and we can get our country back."

George Poitras, a member of the Mikisew Cree First Nation, also in Fort Chipewyan, explained:

"There's been a de facto extinguishment of our treaty rights because the government continues to take up land without any consideration or consultation with the First Nations." The treaty, Poitras told the Dominion, "obligates the government to consult with us any time there is a potential or adverse impact on our treaty rights--to hunt, fish, trap and so on."

But the government is not doing that.

"Historically," said Poitras, "they attempted to colonize us through policies and legislation that are paternal, colonial, imperial and they continue that attitude...[the government is] simply not dealing with us as priority rights holders of these lands."

A water intake at Suncor's main plant on the Athabasca River. According to David Schindler, "industry requires withdrawals of enough water from the Athabasca River to sustain a city of two million people every year." Photo: Dru Oja Jay

University of Alberta ecologist David Schindler, winner of the 1991 Stockholm Water Prize (known as "water science's Nobel Prize"), expressed concern over industry-related chemicals found in the water and their effect on human health.

In an interview shown in a video documentary produced by OilSandsTruth.org Schindler said his biggest concern is the possibility of a breach of massive tailing ponds near Fort McMurray, which now cover an estimated 50-square kilometres. "Those ponds are acutely toxic material, so they would affect things probably well down the Athabasca and into the Slave River, and possibly beyond the Slave Delta."

Such a breach, said Schindler, could conceivably occur in the event of extreme rainfall or an earthquake. But it's not just the extreme possibility that has Schindler concerned.

"We know that those [tailing pond] dykes do seep some material. They try to catch it at the bottom and pump it back over the top. I don't know what per cent efficiency they have, but very few things are 100 per cent efficient."

In Fort Chipewyan, there have been reports of increases in diseases and cancers.

A local doctor, John O'Connor, reported disproportionately high incidents of colon, liver, blood and bile-duct cancers in the community. "There have been several different kinds of cancer, as well as what we call auto-immune diseases like rheumatoid arthritis, lupus, various skin rashes," O'Connor told the Dominion. "The malignant--the cancerous diseases have been the biggest concern."

One condition, Cholangiocarcinoma, normally occurs in one out of 100,000 people. But in Fort Chipewyan, "We've had two tissue biopsy confirmed cases...and possibly another three or four, which didn't actually get to tissue biopsy diagnosis."

"In a population of between 750 and 1200, that's very unexpected."

"There are all kinds of sicknesses going on," said Allan Adam, a councillor with ACFN. "The elders say that before, in the 70s, people weren't sick like they are now. That's when all the oil sands started developing."

Warning signs of toxicity have also turned up in animals. "Some people say that they've seen spots inside the animals, that they won't eat the moosemeat because there's a different taste in it now," said Adam. "Fish have different growths on them, that weren't there before. Pusses growing out of their skin, and the gills are deformed on some of them"

After O'Connor took his claims public and called for an inquiry into the effects of the tar sands operations on water, he became the subject of an official complaint by officials at Health Canada. He subsequently gained the support of the community, environmental groups and First Nations. The Alberta Medical Association unanimously passed a resolution defending his "professional obligation and his right to speak out when he observes something."

Chief Roxanne Marcel of the Mikisew Cree First Nation has issued an appeal: "Our message to both levels of government, to Albertans, to Canadians and to the world who may depend on oil sands for their energy solutions, that we can no longer be sacrificed any longer."

Toxins from tailing ponds aren't the only problem on the Athabasca, however.

Estimates have oil production at 3 million barrels per day by 2015. At this rate, the Athabasca tar sands are projected to last over 400 years. But along with the effects of climate change, water usage will exacerbate the drying of the Athabasca.

Because the Athabasca River is iced-over for long periods, it is susceptible to low oxygen levels from decomposing organic matter. Diminished flows could exacerbate low oxygen levels further. This threatens high flows that flood shallow-side channels and perched basins in the delta, which are critical spawing grounds for fish like walleye.

"About the most positive thing I can say is that I'm glad I'm a human being and not a fish in Alberta," said Schindler.

While Fort Chipewyan and other communities downstream from the tar sands are the first to suffer, scientists say Alberta is not far behind.

The 1900s, said Schindler, has been unusually wet in Alberta, but that is not likely to remain the case. "Any farmer will tell you that it was pretty borderline for agriculture here in the twentieth century, and a good part of the province had to rely on irrigation water."

"If we get a return to those earlier conditions with the effects of climate change and with the high population and industrial growth here, we have the makings of a perfect storm with respect to effects on water."

While oil companies pumping over 100 billion gallons of water out of the Athabasca ever year will be the main problem for life downstream on the Athabasca, it is likely to be climate change--fed increasingly by the tar sands--that will affect the water supply of Edmonton and Calgary.

"Alberta's saving grace has been the water that flows out of the Rocky Mountains," said Schindler. "The only reason we have developments like Calgary and Medicine Hat is because of that water. That water is drying up."

"It's a little bit ironic that the province that's been opposing greenhouse-gas regulations the most is going to be the first to suffer, but that's where we are," said Schindler in May of this year.

That tar sands mining is the cause of toxins in the water and the recent upturn in diseases and cancers is a foregone conclusion for many residents of Fort Chipewyan.

Nonetheless, O'Connor says that the way forward lies in getting the government to investigate the problem and verify the source of the illnesses.

"I've asked for a baseline health study to be done in the community. This has been asked for before," said O'Connor. "If the population south of here is concerned about the health of this community, I would expect further pressure for such a study to be done will result in it being done and will shed much-needed light on what is happening."

Schindler says that the immediate solution is for the government to install a water treatment plant in Fort Chipewyan, to address the problem with the drinking water, and then investigate.

For George Poitras, the battle over the ongoing mining comes down to the fundamental right to exist.

"If we don't have land and we don't have anywhere to carry out our traditional lifestyle, we lose who we are as a people. So if there's no land, then it's equivalent in our estimation to genocide of a people."

"Here, we're living in a G8 country, fully developed, one of the most advanced countries as far as quality of life and as Indigenous people, we're still fighting for our existence."

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