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Downstream to the tar sands

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Today I went further north than many other individuals in Canada have gone. I went past Fort McMurray and the oil sands project itself by plane. I went past forests and sand dunes all the way to a place that is so remote it can only be reached by plane or a six-hour boat ride. I went to Fort Chipewyan, a settlement and community that as far removed as it is, has been gravely impacted by the tar sands.

Fort Chipewyan (also called Fort Chip) is plotted downstream of the dirty oil development. As the Athabasca River (the third largest water-shed in the world) runs straight through the tar sands and is right next to numerous toxic tailing ponds. This river runs north and feeds into the Athabasca Lake, the same lake that is home to the Fort Chip community.

The Alberta government and multinationals like Syncrude say that the water is clean, drinkable -- practically Evian water. They monitor the water specifically for toxic tailing pond seepage, which they claim if there is leakage that it's minimal and only placing "natural" components back into the water.

However, Mike Mercredi, a First Nations resident, told me a different story of his hometown of Fort Chip. His community was being killed off, he said, for the tar sands money. The water that used to be drinkable in the Athabasca Lake was no longer even swimmable because of toxins. The fish had deformities of crooked legs, humpbacks, bulging eyes and tumors -- the same fish that Fort Chip natives have eaten for centuries. He says that now over four dozen people in the small community have rare cancers or diseases. Two members of his family and his best friend (who was in his 20s) all died from cancer last year.

"We are the sacrificial goat to this black gold," says Mercredi.

Scientists and engineers too tell a different story. An engineer from Syncrude itself, Dr. Gord McKenna, said that the tailing ponds are "generally some of the weakest foundation conditions in the world." Made out of clay and dirt, they weren't meant to last.

In 2007, scientist Kevin Timoney found elevated levels of mercury, arsenic and PAH's in the Athabasca Lake affecting the water and fish. PAH (polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons) discovery in particular became a point of tension in debates in Alberta.

PAHs have been found to be a human carcinogen, they are found in the toxic tailing ponds of the tar sands and now found in Athabasca Lake. They can produce rare cancers of the bile duct, the same cancer that has killed two in Fort Chip, possibly a claimed two to three more. This is particularly worrisome as bile duct cancer is found in one in every 100,000 people, while the Fort Chipewyan community has a population of 1,200 -- essentially the odds are impossible.

But PAH can be created from petroleum and non-petroleum sources. Therefore, it could be natural. The source of rare cancers and diseases in Fort Chip is what will unravel the "tar sands is good for us" argument. But because of so many vested interests there has been no independent study on the source despite the efforts of local physician, Dr. John O'Connor, appealing for years.

Instead whistleblowers are shut down or concealed. As Dr. O'Connor's efforts to protect Fort Chipewyan community's health was rewarded with an investigation and potentially his license may be stripped for raising "undue harm." But when I met Dr. O'Connor, it seemed hard pressed to find the soft-spoken, humble Irish man raising any undue harm even if his life depended on it.

However, until we make the connection as Canadians between the largest toxic collection on the planet (the tailing ponds of the tar sands) with downstream communities dying of rare cancers and diseases, we will continue to pump blood with oil as collateral damage.

For now, there are fresh graves in Fort Chipewyan community. Some small and some large, covered in colourful flowers, family pictures, favourite necklaces and one even had a teddy bear. Every month, Mercredi says, a new grave is plotted.

"I wonder who it will be next month?"

Emily Hunter's Journey to the Tar Sands airs this fall on MTV News Canada.

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