FORT CHIPEWYAN, Canada — In 2006, Canadian doctor John O’Connor made a startling realization. Specialists had diagnosed three of his patients in the northern Alberta village of Fort Chipewyan with cholangiocarcinoma — a deadly cancer of the bile duct. The same cancer had killed his own father years earlier in Ireland.
Only about one in 100,000 Canadians contracts this type of cancer, so the likelihood of three cases in a town of about 950 was minuscule. O’Connor suspected pollution from Alberta’s tar sands, 100 miles upstream from Fort Chipewyan on the Athabasca River. Since then, the provincial government, while confirming an additional case of bile duct cancer and high rates of lung and cervical cancer, has yet to investigate further.
Last September, I flew to Fort Chipewyan – Fort Chip, as locals call it – because I wanted to learn about a more recent concern: an epidemic of sick fish in the Athabasca River, which empties into the giant Lake Athabasca at the edge of town. I wanted to find out if poisons from the mines and processing plants are making the people and fish sick.
Oil companies expend huge amounts of energy to dig up and slurp sticky Alberta crude, making it some of the world’s dirtiest oil. Hundreds of thousands of barrels a day are exported by pipe and rail to the US, which would be expanded by the long-delayed Keystone XL pipeline.
Two weeks ago, the US House of Representatives passed a bill approving Keystone, which would include nearly 1,200 miles of pipeline (840 miles of it in the US) and which supporters say would employ tens of thousands of workers (though the payroll would plummet to fewer than 100 after construction). Opponents worry about spills on environmentally sensitive land along the route, and say it’s time Americans learned to be less dependent on the fossil fuels that are driving climate change.
President Obama promised to veto the bill, and did just that on Tuesday this week. But the pipeline isn't off the table yet. Supporters in Congress are fighting the president's veto, while the Obama administration itself could end up approving construction of the pipeline under different terms.
In early fall, dusky red winter foliage rises from low hills of cheat grass along Fort Chip’s Athabascan waterfront. But upstream, in one of the world’s largest industrial complexes, pollution leaks from mammoth mining waste piles and rises from processing plant stacks. The industry has made Fort Chip its toxic sewer.
It took some effort to find anyone there who will discuss pollution from the mines. The Conservative government of Stephen Harper, a relentless tar sands booster, has clamped down on unapproved statements about Alberta oil by government workers.
“I used to be an environmentalist,” said David Campbell, a resource conservation officer at Parks Canada on Fort Chip’s main street. “But I can’t talk about the oil sands anymore.”
Later I learned even that statement was out of bounds for a low-level Canadian official. The government has centralized all messaging about tar sands.
And the message is that waste piles are carefully contained and that stack gasses are safe.
Many residents unconnected with the government also refused to discuss the topic of pollution on the record.
The industry has earned acquiescence — and the silence — of many residents with good paying jobs mining and processing oil. Fort Chip is about 80 percent aboriginal—Cree and Dene Indians and mixed race Métis. They have traditionally hunted and fished, and it’s tough to earn a living here doing anything else.
One morning, I knocked on the door of a ramshackle ranch house, the residence of a fisherman who I had been told might talk to a reporter. His battered pickup filled the driveway. A broad-faced man with long hair pulled back cracked the door open.
“Is Joe there?” I asked.
“Who wants to know?” he said with a scowl. When I said I was reporting on pollution from the tar sands mines, he slammed the door before I asked any questions.
After more “no comments” and closed doors, I met "Big Ray" Ladouceur. He spends much of his time in the fall at his hunting camp across Lake Athabasca.
Sitting in his cabin, warmed by a wood stove over a mug of bitter coffee, he said he was concerned about the pollution.
“There are deadly things in the water,” he began darkly.
Big Ray has fished commercially for 57 years. He knows the smooth, sleek body of a healthy pickerel.
About two decades ago, he said—soon after tar sands mining took off — he began hauling up nets filled with sick fish. They came up humpbacked, with crooked tails, faces pushed in and with eyes bulging out. He’d never seen catches like those.
“Some of them look like they’re from outer space,” he said.
In 2010, one of Canada’s preeminent ecologists, David Schindler, convened a press conference, in which he displayed ice buckets brimming with deformed fish. Big Ray joined Schindler at the event, complaining that the government had, for more than a decade, ignored requests to investigate a tie between sick fish and tar sands pollution.
But no officials had seemed to care, said Schindler. He says Canada’s regulatory and health agencies have delayed the necessary studies to prove a connection and, if they’ve found anything so far, they’ve kept results secret.
“Somebody’s dragging their feet,” he said.
Some studies have been conducted. Air pollution from the mines and processing plants have been found to spread mercury and carcinogenic polyaromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) across northeast Alberta. And researchers found industry waste in the Athabasca riverbed, downstream from supposedly leak-free settling ponds. Others discovered that freshwater mussels caged downstream from tar sands mines developed damaged DNA.
Schindler says such results suggest that a more intensive look at contamination from the industry is overdue.
Through a spokesman, Alberta’s Chief Medical Officer of Health James Talbot said, “There isn’t adequate evidence at this time to link the incidence of specific diseases directly to chemical emissions from the oil sands.”
Officials at Environment Canada, the country’s environmental protection agency, declined an interview request. However, in a written response to questions, the agency stated that it monitors the incidence of deformed fish in the Athabasca River and Lake.
The agency also said it studies the health of fish larvae raised in a lab using sediments collected near tar sands mines. So far, the agency stated, research "has not revealed evidence establishing a causal link between fish deformities and oil sands resource development."
In Fort Chip, Big Ray’s son Smokey, 49, fetched a red plastic bag from a beat-up freezer in his garage and, with a thud, he dumped two fish the size of his forearm onto a plywood table. He poured a bucket of water on them, melting off the ice crystals encrusting their silvery bodies.
Ulcers pocked the tail end of one. An eye of the other protruded from its head like a translucent, misshapen mushroom the size of a quarter.
Such fish are probably not dangerous to eat, Schindler said, though they would probably not sell well at the grocery store. The fish may have been exposed to pollution years ago, as embryos and the adults’ flesh could be perfectly clean.
But these deformities, said Schindler, suggest that potent pollutants, in levels harmful to humans, may swirl in these waters.
The pollution may not be caused by the tar sands mines alone, said O’Connor, but no one will know unless sufficient studies are conducted. Before arriving at the mines, the Athabasca flows through many towns and cities where sewage plants and paper mills also dump waste into its water.
“If money and expertise were dispatched, it could clear up a lot of things.”
On my last day in Fort Chip, I met Bill Tucaroo, a river guide, who also owns a taxi service. He worked for decades in the industry. During a festival last June, a party of oil company executives had chartered his boat for a joy ride on the Athabasca. By chance, he’d hauled up to a dead fish.
“I said, ‘take a picture of that,’” Tucaroo recalled.
A dead fish spoiled the next fishing stop as well.
“They were frickin’ stunned,” Tucaroo told me. After the tour ended, the visitors asked for the bill.
“I charged them $500 for an hour,” — about ten times his normal rate — he said with a wink.
This reporting was supported by a grant from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.