A year ago we were putting the final touches on Tar Wars, the story of a small-town physician who’d been threatened with sanctions from Canadian health authorities after announcing that pollution from Alberta’s massive tar sands mines might be killing his patients in tiny Fort Chipewyan. A lot has happened since then. Just after the story appeared, the Alberta government opened an investigation into the town’s health problems. Around the same time, Los Angeles-based filmmaker Leslie Iwerks read our story and was inspired to make “Downstream,” a controversial documentary about the doctor, John O’Connor, which came out in December and was promptly short-listed for an Oscar.
This past week, Alberta health officials finally concluded their investigation and announced that Fort Chip suffered from a higher than expected cancer rate. They’d found 51 cancers in 47 people, compared to the 39 that were expected in the town of 1,200. They also reported two cases of cholangiocarcinoma, a rare-bile duct cancer that is normally found in one person out of 100,000. That’s the same number of cases that the nurse at Fort Chip’s health clinic had told me she could document, but more than the one case that the Alberta government had reported at the time and fewer than the five that O’Connor said he’d seen. Presumably, O’Connor’s inability to document all five cholangiocarcinomas has been the root of the government’s ongoing investigation into whether he raised “undue alarm” in the community. It now seems that the government’s under-reporting of the cases should equally require it to investigate itself for undue complacency.
Despite the new findings, Fort Chip’s small size and isolation–it’s only accessible by plane or boat for much of the year–prevents biostaticians from easily saying that cancers are caused by more than chance. Still, our piece detailed many other reasons to finger tar sands pollution, and even the government’s scientists are starting to sound worried: “We did find some soft signals (for concern),” investigator Tony Fields told the Edmonton Journal, adding that scientists would need to keep tabs on the town to see if the cancers were part of a trend. That’s small comfort to the many Fort Chip locals who are convinced the tar sands are killing them.
On Thursday, President Barack Obama makes his first official visit to Canada, the U.S.’ top supplier of foreign oil. Canadian officials want to propose a U.S.-Canada climate pact that would exempt the tar sands’ greenhouse gas emissions (the sands is a big reason why Canada flunked its Kyoto targets). Obama will probably hear how the U.S. oil companies that are knee-deep in the capital-intensive sands stand to lose big bucks in the era of cheap gas and pricey carbon. Let’s hope that’s not all he hears. Tiny Fort Chip is the oldest settlement in Alberta, sits on the tar sands’ doorstep, and is eager to put the brakes on development. Presumably, that should count for something.
UPDATE: Just in time for Obama’s visit, the environmental group Forest Ethics has placed a full-page ad in USA Today tarring the tar sands. Meanwhile, the Canadian American Business Council, which includes ExxonMobil and Shell, is running full-page ads in the New York Times, Washington Post, and National Journal stressing that “Canada is poised to securely supply even more oil and natural gas to the U.S.”