Down the River

The province says life is fine downstream from the oil sands. So why does nobody in Fort Chipewyan believe it?

By Jeremy Klaszus

Winging my way over the deep green forest of northern Alberta toward Fort Chipewyan, I’m crammed into a twin- engine Piper PA 31-350 Navajo Chieftain with two pilots and five other passengers. We fly low, well below the clouds, on the 45-minute trip from Fort McMurray. Sweating as the evening July sunlight beams directly into the cabin, we can see the oil sands to the west, where billows of smoke rise from the gashed terrain. A river glints on the land like a golden necklace, the setting sun reflecting off its surface as it winds around oddly shaped toxic lakes.

The Athabasca. It flows more than 1,500 kilometres from its headwaters at the Columbia Icefields to the Peace/Athabasca Delta, a 6,000-square-kilometre complex of lakes, waterways and wetlands, and one of the largest freshwater deltas in the world. In Cree, Athabasca means “a place where grass is everywhere.” From the air, we can see the delta’s countless waterways. It looks empty of anything other than plant life, but in fact the delta is vitally important to birds and fish. In spring, up to 400,000 birds use it; in autumn that population swells to over a million.

North of the delta, on the western corner of Lake Athabasca, is Fort Chipewyan, an Aboriginal community of about 900 people, mostly Mikisew Cree, Athabasca Chipewyan and Métis. The community, located just east of Wood Buffalo National Park, is the oldest European settlement in the province. Traditionally, the Athabasca River has been a waterway of life for Fort Chip. Not only is it the primary way to get in and out of the community during summertime, but it’s an important habitat for fish, a staple food in Fort Chip.

But these days, the Athabasca is rumoured to bring death. Fishermen talk about finding fish with their eyes bulged out like balloons. In June, one resident found a dead beaver on the lakeshore with all its hair fallen out, and no lacerations. It’s not just animals people are worried about, either. They’re worried about themselves. The local doctor says the community is experiencing high levels of cancer and other diseases, particularly a rare cancer of the bile duct. No one knows exactly why—but many in Fort Chip say the problem comes down the river from one of the largest industrial projects in the world.

If you want to get a strong account of how the delta and lake have changed over the past 50 years, Raymond Ladouceur—known locally as Big Ray—is a good guy to ask. The curly-haired 65-year-old Métis has fished on the lake and trapped on the land around Fort Chip for more than half a century. For years, Ladouceur pulled pickerel, trout, northern pike, whitefish and suckers from the lake. His big brown eyes flare with anger as he recalls the beginning of modern Fort Chip’s environmental problems: Bennett Dam.

In the 1960s, the BC government built the dam on the powerful Peace River, which flows into the Peace/Athabasca Delta. For BC, the dam brought hydroelectric power. For Fort Chip, it brought disaster. The sensitive ebb and flow of the delta was disrupted and water in Lake Athabasca dropped by four to five feet, turning many of the delta’s shallow lakes into mudflats. This drastically cut fish stocks and killed off thousands of muskrat which relied on the shallow lakes. No one in Fort Chip was consulted before the dam was built. In fact, no one was even told. Ladouceur and other trappers and fishermen found out for themselves when they saw the water drop and animals die.

Sitting at the kitchen table in his trailer just north of Fort Chip’s main street, Ladouceur seethes when he thinks back to difficult years after the dam was built. But he’s just as mad about recent water pollution. Pulp mills upstream on the Athabasca have dumped dioxins and furans into the river since the 1950s, and abandoned uranium mines on the eastern end of Lake Athabasca have contaminated the lake with arsenic, copper, lead, nickel, zinc, radium and uranium. “I’ve seen a lot of changes in the river. All kinds of garbage coming down, floating on the river—like foam,” says Ladouceur. Thirty years ago, fishermen like Ladouceur would drink straight from the river. No longer. “I call this place a red zone. A danger zone,” he says. “Most beautiful place around, too.”

In June, one resident found a dead beaver on the lakeshore with all its hair fallen out, and no lacerations.

Ladouceur says he’s found more and more fish with “pushed- in eyes, bulged-out faces and crooked tails,” something he had never seen until 10 years ago. He describes the trout he’s found recently: “They got big heads and small little bodies.”

Ladouceur saw first-hand what the BC government’s in- difference did to the delta. Now he says he’s seeing the same kind of brazen disregard from the Alberta government and the oil companies that pull water from the river upstream, and create massive lakes of tailings—toxic water used in oil sands mining—that can easily seep back into the river. “Everybody’s got to drink their garbage down below and that’s what’s causing the deaths of so many people in Fort Chip,” says Ladouceur. “I really believe it’s in the water.”

Alberta Environment says the river isn’t being significantly impacted by the oil sands. But oil sands mining releases polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) into the water, some of which are carcinogenic. Oil sands mining also produces high concentrations of naphthenic acids in tailings ponds. These acids are “the primary toxic for biotic organisms from oil sands waters,” according to Preston McEachern, a section head for Alberta Environment’s oil sands division.

Despite this, Alberta Environment has no regulatory limits for naphthenic acids. “They don’t even have a standard in place to protect humans and fish and wildlife, so that if [naphthenic acid levels] were increasing over time, it might reach that threshold where they say, ‘Okay, something needs to be done because the water’s becoming too contaminated,’” says Dan Woynillowicz, a senior policy analyst with the Pembina Institute. McEachern says Alberta Environment hopes to have standards in place sometime in 2008.

Quality of the water is a big concern in Fort Chip, but just as important is the quantity of water. Thanks to climate change, the Athabasca Glacier in the Rocky Mountains is rapidly melting. In the last 125 years, the glacier has lost half its volume and receded by 1.5 kilometres. The river’s flow levels have dropped as a result. Between 1970 and 2005, summer flow levels at Fort McMurray—upstream from the oil sands plants—declined by 29 per cent, according to research done by renowned University of Alberta water expert David Schindler. “It’s like somebody is adding an invisible oil sands plant to that river every two years,” says Schindler. “That’s the effect of climate alone—not the real oil sands.”

As flows levels decrease—and they are going down in the Peace and Slave rivers too—the Peace/Athabasca Delta is slowly drying up. In Richardson Lake, a favourite spawning place for walleye south of Fort Chip, fish are having trouble getting in and out of the lake. “It’s a matter of a few centimetres as to whether they can get in there to spawn,” says Schindler.

Alberta Environment disputes Schindler’s analysis that summer flows are down 29 per cent. “There’s a slight downward trend in the flows over the last 30 years,” says McEachern. “[It’s] not nearly as drastic as what’s been reported by Schindler.” He says flows have declined by 10 to 12 per cent over the past 40 years. But that number comes from total annual flows, not seasonal flows. “Modern in-stream flow needs studies stress that it is not total flow, but seasonality, that is important,” says Schindler. “I’m sure they’re trying to put the best face on a bad scene.”

On May 12, 2007, Alexandra Hartridge of the World Wildlife Fund caught this whitefish (with tumour) in the Athabasca River. (Jiri Rezac/Polaris)

The Energy & Utilities Board (EUB) hasn’t warmed to Schindler’s research, either. In 2003, he presented at the EUB hearing for the Canadian Natural Resources Ltd. (CNRL) Horizon project. “If you read the [EUB’s] report, it’s like I wasn’t there,” says Schindler. It’s true: he’s only mentioned once in the 121-page document, listed as a witness for the Mikisew Cree. “The companies had huge rooms full of consultants working on generating responses and presentations and they had some very high-powered corporate lawyers,” recalls Schindler. The Mikisew Cree, by contrast, had no lawyer, and had to go downtown in Fort McMurray to buy a printer just so they could print their own documents. “It was a very, very stacked process,” Schindler says.

Archie Waquan, 60, was chief of the Mikisew Cree during the hearings. Sitting on the back deck of his rustic bed and breakfast in Fort Chip, he recalls the hearing with frustration. “Sometimes I think it’s really futile and useless,” he says. “Sometimes I think they have their minds made up, that somehow or another they’re given the green light before all these hearings start.” To get intervenor status in the EUB hearing, the Mikisew Cree band first had to make the case that it was local. Waquan and the others found this darkly amusing. “Who’s more local— the guys from Calgary that’s actually hearing our application, or we up here getting all the shit?” says Waquan. One of his main concerns at the hearing was water: the quantity of it, the quality of it, and the lack of studies done on under-ice river flows during the winter. “They don’t know what damage it has done to the local habitat, fish habitat during the winter months,” says Waquan. “And yet they’re still taking out the water during the winter.” During winter months, oil sands projects use up to 15 per cent of the river’s flow, according to the Pembina Institute.

More than 20 water licences have been issued for oil sands projects, allowing water withdrawal of up to 535,930 cubic decametres—8 per cent of all licensed surface water use in Alberta. Companies aren’t required to put any of that water back into the river. Furthermore, the province doesn’t monitor industry’s river withdrawals. Industry monitors itself and passes the data along to Alberta Environment. McEachern says there are “stiff fines”—upwards of $1-million a day—for exceeding withdrawal limits, but a company has to report its own breach to be fined. “I think it’s safe to say that most Albertans think that’s a joke,” says Schindler, “analogous to looking at your speedometer and pulling over at a telephone and reporting yourself to the police when you speed.”

Everything is fine: that’s the mantra of the provincial government. Premier Ed Stelmach famously said there’s no such thing as touching the brake on oil sands development, and the environmental concerns of people in Fort Chip aren’t significant enough to slow anything down. Neither are their health concerns, which have been well publicized by the community’s doctor. Meet John O’Connor, a family physician from Ireland and a sharp stone in the shoe of government.

To get intervenor status, the Mikisew Cree band first had to make the case that it was local. “Who’s more local?” says Waquan. “The guys from Calgary that’s actually hearing our application, or we up here getting all the shit?”

I first met O’Connor in June at a conference in Athabasca where he gave a presentation on health concerns in Fort Chip. “I don’t feel comfortable standing in front of large groups of people,” he said shyly, the microphone barely picking up his voice. O’Connor was cautious and guarded, and for good reason. Several months earlier, three Health Canada physicians had filed complaints against him with the Alberta College of Physicians & Surgeons. O’Connor had been openly speaking to the media about the high rates of cancer, lupus and rheumatoid arthritis he was seeing in Fort Chip. This didn’t go over well with Health Canada. “He can only talk about certain things,” said an organizer at the Athabasca conference ominously, “because he’s under tremendous pressure.” You could see almost everyone in the room lean forward a couple of inches.

Waquan first sounded the alarm for O’Connor during the EUB hearings for CNRL’s Horizon project and Shell’s Jackpine project in the fall of 2003. For a long time, nothing happened. Health Canada and Alberta Health & Wellness talked about doing a baseline health study—a recommendation made by the EUB after the Horizon and Jackpine hearings—but nothing came of it. In early 2006, the media approached O’Connor (not, he stresses, the other way around). O’Connor was frank about his concerns in interviews. “We [have] illnesses that shouldn’t be seen in such large numbers in this size of community,” O’Connor said on the CBC’s Sounds Like Canada in May 2006. “The big one that really concerns me is cholangiocarcinoma, which is a cancer of the biliary tract.” O’Connor is very familiar with the disease—it killed his father in 1993. “It’s a very insidious and rapidly progressing cancer,” he says. O’Connor had confirmed two cases of the disease and suspected three more. This alarmed him, since the disease typically occurs once in 100,000 people.

O’Connor’s outspokenness last year clearly made both Health Canada and Alberta Health & Wellness uneasy. Documents I obtained through Freedom of Information and Access to Information requests show that O’Connor’s interviews with media in early 2006 set off a flurry of activity in Health Canada’s Edmonton office. Bureaucrats exchanged radio transcripts and online news stories about O’Connor and scrambled to set up meetings with him. “I do want to respect the established process but I am getting a sense that the pace needs to increase,” wrote one bureaucrat to another in March, a week after O’Connor told a CBC reporter that Health Canada should do a baseline health study in Fort Chip.

(When I filed an Access to Information request with Health Canada for documents on cancer in Fort Chip, it took four months for the documents to be released, and 61 of 259 pages were completely withheld. When I made the same request with Alberta Health & Wellness, it took almost six months for the province to release anything. When it did, 363 of 501 relevant pages were withheld.)

Instead of doing a baseline health study, Alberta Health & Wellness did a quick statistical analysis. The resulting six-page “summary of findings,” released in July 2006, concluded there was no cancer problem in Fort Chip. According to the analysis, there was only one confirmed case of cholangiocarcinoma; O’Connor said he knew of two confirmed cases and three suspected cases. Despite O’Connor’s doubts, Health Canada lauded the analysis as “credible and unbiased.”

Meanwhile, also in July, Suncor was partway through EUB hearings for its Voyageur expansion. “It’s very peculiar that [the analysis] was pulled together in time for these hearings,” O’Connor told reporters at the time. “A thorough review should have taken months and even a year to complete.” O’Connor says he was told the review would be released in September; it came out two months earlier.

Suncor used the analysis to argue that the company’s expansion should be approved without any health-related conditions. The board agreed to this, largely because Alberta Health said it would meet with the community to discuss the statistical study and assess the need for further health studies. O’Connor says that meeting never happened.

In Fort Chip, no one takes the analysis seriously. Mention it and people scoff. They trust O’Connor’s concerns more than government assurances that everything is fine. “Here I see a man that has a lot of courage,” says Pat Marcel, an elder for the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation. “When I see a man like that that’s willing to lose it all for what he believes in, then that man in my books has the most credibility of all. And that’s not what I see in government.”

Mikisew Cree elder Archie Waquan blames water quality for Fort Chip’s rate of illness. (Jeremy Klaszus)

Then I talk to people at Health Canada. “Obviously, physicians take [their profession] very seriously,” says Jeannie Smith, a spokesperson for the department. “If they see a concern, then they have a responsibility to report those concerns.” However, Smith isn’t talking about O’Connor’s responsibility to voice his concerns about what he was seeing in Fort Chip. Rather, she’s talking about the three Health Canada doctors who filed complaints against O’Connor. “That’s what our physicians did in this case,” she says.

Smith says a baseline health study isn’t Health Canada’s responsibility, because most of Fort Chip is off-reserve, and Health Canada’s mandate is to serve on-reserve aboriginals. “As soon as you hit off-reserve, we’re outside of our jurisdiction,” she says. But that’s not what the department said in 2004 after the EUB recommended Health Canada take the lead in doing a baseline health study. At the time, Health Canada said it accepted the recommendation.

Now, apparently, it’s no longer Health Canada’s responsibility. And the province believes its six-page analysis is sufficient, even though no one in Fort Chip believes a word of it. Still, O’Connor is optimistic, as he has been the whole time. He believes that the media attention, if nothing else, will force the government into doing a proper study. “I’m somewhere between confident and hopeful,” he says. “It’s got so much media coverage now that I don’t think it’s going to be easy to ignore it. There would definitely have to be

It’s easy to get around in Fort Chip. I hardly went anywhere without someone offering me a ride, even if my destination was just a few blocks away. Once, I went to the Northern Store for groceries and ended up in someone’s kitchen, conversing over a bottle of red wine with a Keyano College instructor I had just briefly met earlier that day. That’s what Fort Chip is like. So when I showed interest in going out into the delta in a boat, it didn’t take long for someone to offer to take me.

Bruce Inglis and I set out in his motorboat on an overcast Thursday morning. The grey skies held promise for the locals: Fort Chip had seen hardly any precipitation since winter, and any rain would be very welcome. We sped south over the great expanse of the lake toward the Amber River, flanked on both sides by willows and grasses of yellow and green. In Athabasca, grass really is everywhere.

On the lake, the calm was broken only by the roaring of our boat and the flight of pelicans.

It was hard not to contemplate the smallness of human beings and the vastness of the lake. It made me wonder how something as big as Lake Athabasca could be affected by human activity at all.

“Here I see a man willing to lose it all for what he believes in. That’s not what I see in government.”

It was almost easy to believe government assurances that climate change isn’t having a big impact on the Athabasca system, that industrial activity isn’t seriously polluting the water, and that everything downstream from the oil sands is more or less unaffected. Everything looked fine.

Until I was struck by the aloneness. There was no one on the lake. Birds and fish, sure, but the human presence was minimal. Just a few other boats way off in the distance. From across the lake, Fort Chip was a speck on the shore. A tiny community of fewer than 1,000 people, barely visible even from here.

If the entire population of Calgary or Edmonton lived on the shores of Lake Athabasca, things might be different. It’s hard to imagine the province refusing a health study if one million frustrated southern Albertans were demanding it. It would be on the front pages of newspapers every day, and something would happen. In Fort Chip, people grimly realize that a small Aboriginal community can easily be ignored.

And so oil sands development continues uninhibited while the Athabasca River flows decrease, while the province ignores one of its most expert water scientists, while proper contaminant regulations aren’t yet in place, while the province doesn’t monitor industrial water withdrawals, while people die of cancer, while the provincial and federal governments refuse to do a baseline health study and while bureaucrats try to take down a whistleblower doctor. Excuses are given for all these things, some more convincing than others.

But, given more than 10 seconds of thought, they seem thin as the sprinkling of rain that fell as Inglis and I rocketed our way over the lake back toward Fort Chip.

Jeremy Klaszus won the 2006 Alexander Ross Award at the National Magazine Awards for features he wrote for Alberta Views.



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