Human Journey

Health Concerns Downstream of Alberta’s Tar Sands

Dr. John O’Conner is concerned about a cancer cluster downstream of Alberta’s tar sands.

I first met Doctor John O’Connor at the Wood Buffalo Brewing Company, one of the only places to eat or drink at in the tar sands capital Fort McMurray that’s not a chain. O’conner had also invited Laurie McDaniel, a candidate from the New Democratic Party for the Candadian parliament, and her assistant Shannon. (McDaniel later lost, with an 11.5% share of the vote of the region that includes Fort McMurray.)

The bar was noisy so I could only get the gist of what my companions told me. Shannon described the political landscape in the area with language that would make a sailor blanch.  McDaniel told me about life in the mines. When not on the campaign trail, she operates one of the mammoth trucks tar sands companies use to cart ore around. They have buckets big enough to carry a suburban starter home, and can lift a 400 ton load. O’Connor explained how he nearly lost his right to practice medicine after he raised concerns about the health of the residents of Fort Chipewayan, a tiny indigenous community down stream of the big tar sands mines. At that time, he was the only doctor in Fort Chip, as the town is called.

I met O’Connor again a few days later. This time he was dressed for  work, with a stethoscope around his neck. He agreed to talk to me briefly in the parking lot of the Northern Lights Regional Health Centre, one of two hospitals where he now practices (the other being a facility in Fort McKay, a town about 35 miles north).

O’Connor explained to me that in the last 9 years, at least four people in Fort Chip have been diagnosed with Cholangiocarcinoma, a generally-very-rare cancer of the liver’s bile ducts. (The exact number of cases in Fort Chip is in dispute.) Under normal circumstances, about 1 in 200,000 people develop Cholangiocarcinoma. It would be unusual for a community the size of Fort Chip (with about 1000 people) to have any cases at all. O’Connor says that government officials have been lax about seeking an explanation for why so many cases of this unusual cancer have occurred in Fort Chip.

The day we spoke, Alberta’s Chief Medical Officer had recently announced that cancer was unusually high in Fort Chip. But he said that no further study of the town was needed or would be undertaken by his agency. See a video clip of John O’Connor.

This story was made possible in part by a travel grant from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting. You can support Dan Grossman’s next reporting project on the tar sands here at Indiegogo.


Daniel Grossman has been a print journalist and radio and web producer for 20 years. He has produced radio stories and documentaries on science and the environment for National Public Radio’s show Weekend Edition; Public Radio International’s show on the environment, Living on Earth, and news magazine, The World. He has written for the New York Times, The Boston Globe, Discover, Audubon and Scientific American.
  • tmarsh

    To be fair there will be a dearth of studies done in the area. The provincial and federal governments have walked away after the Athabasca Fort Chipweyan First nation walked away from the government’s study. It has become a political football. Resolution to this seem at this point very far away.

  • S Anderson

    As a nurse I am appalled at the attitude of the health officials. It looks to me as if the people of Ft. Chip are being treated as expendable in the great rush to make money for the big oil corporations. There may be other reasons for the cancer rate but any pocket of rare cancer should be investigated. I recently visited Ft. McMoney and toured the visitor centre. I am afraid that the environment is very much at risk due to the size of the tar sands and the need to expand at all costs that is evident in order to make money. The land and the people will never be the same.

  • Deborah English

    That is TOTALLY RIDICULOUS that no one is taking responsibility for causing these poor persons illness. The Government needs to step up into position to make things right. Although I’m not aboriginal, I firmly believe ACTION would be taken IMMEDIATELY IF IT WAS AFFECTING non aboriginal personal!!!!!!! Prove me wrong PLEASE!!!!!!!!!

  • Sue Ayers

    Last Oct I lost my husband after a 31.5 month battle to Cholangiocarcinoma. I would like contact info on this Dr please. My husband spent a good portion of his life working on drilling rigs in Alberta BC and Saskatchewan. I would appreciate any info you can give me.

  • Mary Johnson

    Please protect Mother Earth for our future generations, these Tar Sands are killing people, the animals, fish, plants, tress and the beautiful land. The water is getting toxic and soon we will not be able to drink it which includes all people in the North.

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