Dark Satanic Mills, Inevitably Come to Mind

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The Alberta Government assets that the river is not being contaminated–that anything found in the river or in its delta, at Lake Athabasca, comes from natural bitumen seeps. The river cuts right through the oil sands downstream of the mines, and as our chooper zoomed along a few feet above it, McEachern pointed out several places where the riverbank was black and the water oily. “There is an increase in a lot of metals as you move downstream,” he said . “That’s natural–it’s weathering of the geology. There’s mercury in the fish up at Lake Athabasca–we’ve had an advisory there since the 1990s. There are PAHs in the sediments in the delta. They’re there because the river has eroded through the oil sands.”

Independent scientists, to say nothing of people who live downstream of the mines in the First Nation’s community of Fort Chipewyan, on Lake Athabasca, are skeptical. “It’s inconceivable that you could move that much tar and have no effect,” says Peter Hodson, a fish toxicologist at Queen’s University in Ontario. An environment Canada study did in fact show an effect on fish in the Steepbank River, which flows past a Suncor mine into the Athabasca. Fish near the mine, Gerald Tetreault and his colleagues found when they caught some in 1999 and 2000, showed fives times more activity of a liver enzyme that breaks down toxins–a widely used measure of exposure to pollutans–as did fish near a natural bitumen seep on the Steepbank.

In the distance steam and smoke and gas flames belched from the stacks of the Syncrude and Suncor upgraders–“dark satanic mills” inevitably come to mind, but they’re a riveting sight all the same

“The thing that angers me,” says David Schindler, “is that there’s been no concerted effort to find out where the truth lies.”

Schindler, an ecologist at the University of Alberta in Edmonton, was talking about whether people in Fort Chipwyan have already been killed by pollution from the oil sands. In 2006 John O’Connor, a family physician who flew in weekly to treat patients at the health clinic in Fort Chipm told a radio interviewer that he had in recent years seen five cases of cholangiocarcinoma–a cancer of the bile duct that normally strikes one in 100,000 people. Fort Chip has a population of around 1,000;statisticlly it was unlikely to have even one case. O’Connor hadn’t managed to interest health authorities in the cancer cluster, but the radio interview drew wide attention to the story. “Suddenly it was everywhere,” he says. “It just exploded.”

Two of O’Connor’s five cases, he says, had been confirmed by tissue biopsy; the other three patients had shown the same symptoms but had died before they could be biopsied. (Cholangiocarcinoma can be confused on CT scans with more common cancers such as liver or pancreastic cancer.) “There is no evidence of elevated cancer rates in the community,” Howard May, a spokesperson for Alberta Health, wrote in an email last September. But the agency, he said, was nonetheless conducting a more complete investigation–this time actually examining the medical records from Fort Chip–to try to quiet acontroversy that was now two years old.