Buyout packages allegedly silence Albertans struck with industry-related cancer

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Photo: Anne Brown

Locals living close to oil and gas projects in what is known as Alberta's Industrial Heartland are not surprised that a recent study found that chemicals in the air cause blood-related cancers.

"There’s many people that have been diagnosed with cancer. Many of them have left. Some of them have died," said Anne Brown, who lives in the Riverside Park subdivision, near Fort Saskatchewan, one of four counties part of the Industrial Heartland.

The Nobel Prize-winning chemistry department of the University of California in Irvine conducted the study. It found 77 volatile pollutants in the air, including carcinogens. Leukaemia and Hodgkin's lymphoma among men "stood out statistically," said Isobel Simpson, one of the chemists involved in the study.

Simpson said she can only speculate that the blood-related cancers were prevalent in men because they might have worked in the industries.

The industrial area includes 582 km2 space where more than 40 chemical, petrochemical, oil and gas facilities have been established since the 1950s. Sometimes referred to as "Upgrader Alley," it is the largest hydrocarbon processing area in Canada and is located about 30 km northeast of Edmonton.

Brown was a member of Citizens for Responsible Development, a group that spoke at the National Energy Board hearings in 2010 against French oil giant Total that wanted to build a bitumen upgrader in the area.

The upgrader was approved, but is slated to continue in Fort MacMurray instead. Two other projects that will upgrade a total of 410,000 barrels of bitumen per day to crude oil have been approved.  

At the hearings, the group voiced their concerns about the increasing rates of cancer they noticed in the community. 

"Their quality of life was just robbed from them. Some of them have loved ones who passed on with cancer now. After many years of fighting and struggling, they were able to get out. But it took years of their lives to be taken out," Brown said.

They were "taken out" by buyout deals, known as the Voluntary Residential Property Purchase Program. Residents living in the area can apply for the package if their home is close to one or multiple industries. 

Mike Hudema, an environmental activist with Greenpeace, said the program silences many of the residents diagnosed with cancer, effectively keeping the issue away from the public eye.

"A lot of people left the area because there had been people who had been diagnosed with cancer, and basically took out buyout packages and signed a non-disclosure deal where they can't talk about it," he said.

Like Brown, Hudema criticized the Alberta government for knowing about the cancer for years. "Again, we have the Alberta government really trying to downplay concerns and not doing anything to try to address any of it," he said.

The province’s Environment and Sustainable Resource Development monitors the air quality in the area daily, said Nikki Booth, a spokesperson for the ministry. It conducts tests along with the non-profit Fort Air Partnership, whose board members include people associated with Shell Scotford and Dow Chemical, which run facilities in the area.

"Based on the level of that monitoring, we don't see any evidence that people in the Heartland region are exposed to any of the chemicals indicated in the paper," she said.

"We welcome and review all these reports and it is important to the body of knowledge in the area. And we're fortunate in Alberta that it's rated as low-risk 94 per cent of the time," she added.

Booth also noted the time frame that the scientists took to collect the data. "The biggest difference is that their samples is in a two-day period in the 'high plume' area. And we don't collect just in the high plume area but in the places where people actually reside," she said.

Simpson admits the study does not conclusively associate cancer with the air pollutants they found, such as Benzene, which is emitted from petroleum products.

"Because the toxicity of Benzene over the long term isn't well understood, we're recommending already reducing the emissions of known carcinogens in this area. In other words, not waiting to see more cancers. There’s a lag of when you're exposed to carcinogens to when the cancer develops. So take a prudent approach and reduce the emissions," Simpson said.

The World Health Organization released research almost the same time as the Irvine study, which concluded that air pollution as a whole causes cancer and must be designated in general as a carcinogen. The organization already linked Benzene to cancer prior to the over 1000 worldwide studies pooled together for the research.

But the government has no plan to heed the Irvine study's recommendations. "Their call for a reduction... our numbers don't show that those numbers are what people are being exposed to in the Industrial Heartland," Booth said.

Eriel Deranger, of the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation, said her community also has seen a higher rate of cancer -- despite being 160 km downstream of the nearest project.

Her people believe they are acquiring cancer because they hunt and rely on the land for food, she said. "A lot of the same compounds that are found in the Industrial Heartland area are being found in high concentration levels in the species that we're eating," Deranger said.

Pack your bags, find another place to live

So why not just move? Critics would argue it’s a simple enough solution to to pack one’s bags.

Browne said that she was once actually part of the Land Trust Society, which oversees the buyout programs. When her subdivision was ruled out of the application, she resigned.

During the 2010 NEB hearings, people were conflicted over whether to participate, hoping not to jeopardize their applications for the buyout, Brown said. "If you're desperate and you want to get out, you may not go to that hearing so that your name will stay on the top of the list. So you may give up your fundamental right to speak at this hearing. For a chance to possibly get out," she said.

Even if she was eligible, moving isn’t that simple -- her youngest son is still in high school and her husband, who works in the Fort Saskatchewan county, is up for retirement soon. "We have participated in every process that we possibly could have in and to have our concerns heard since the day we heard about this development in May 2001."

"It has consumed our lives but even to this day, we hope that we will be able to protect what we have --our quality of life, our health and our property value," she said.

Deranger cited both research and traditional beliefs to explain why the Athebasca Chipeweyan First Nation decide to stay put. "You can’t debate science. Science says that the planet sustains us. And the things that sustain us, we look at as Mother Earth."

"For First Nations people to just move away, for us it’s like abandoning our mother."

This article originally appeared on the Vancouver Observer and is reprinted with permission.

Photo is courtesy of Anne Brown via the Vancouver Observer.

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