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.


Human Journey

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.