Editorial — January 27, 2014 at 8:09 PM

Government blackballing lives on

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It was roughly 10 years ago when Dr. John O’Connor, a locum doctor serving Fort Chipewyan, first brought forth concerns that there might be higher than normal cancer rates in the community.

Forces within the federal and Alberta governments quickly mounted a campaign challenging O’Connor. He subsequently faced a number of charges before the Alberta College of Physicians and Surgeons (ACPS) including “causing undue alarm,” as well as withholding the case files of his patients who had incurred the cancers. He was brought before hearings facing the threat of the loss of his medical license.

The Nunee Health Authority (NHA), which is mandated to run the health delivery system in Fort Chipewyan, told The Journal at the time that Dr. O’Connor, as a visiting physician, did not have the authority to provide access to patient medical files – not to anyone. Furthermore, the NHA manager said they were concerned that there might be legal ramifications if even they were to release confidential patient files. She said they had twice written to Alberta Health asking for a legal opinion on their position. No legal opion was forthcoming, much to the frustration of the NHA manager, who wanted the whole matter cleared up.

Alberta Health admitted in 2009 that their data showed a higher than average presence of cancer in Fort Chipewyan. Environmental studies have subsequently delivered evidence that there are indeed carcinogenic toxins emanating from the oilsands and found pervasively on the land and in the river. That, in spite of the fact both the federal and Alberta governments are actively promoting the growth of the industry while making claims that there is no negative impact. It is apparent now more than ever that studying the effects of the industry on human health in the region should be a priority. Yet there has never been a proper study, including clinical testing, on the impact on human health from the oilsands industry.

What O’Connor did in raising his concerns 10 years ago was not only right, it was what he was supposed to do as a community doctor. His actions were commendable.

In spite of all that, at least to our knowledge (since the ACPS is a very discreet agency), one of the charges against O’Connor was held in obeyence and he was never fully cleared. He is perpetually under the threat of losing his license to practice as a physician.

This matter deserves official investigation. An injustice was perpetrated against Dr. O’Connor by agents acting inappropriately within government. Those individuals should be sought out and dismissed, perhaps even punished. Dr John O’Connor, on the other hand, should be exonerated, even celebrated. The Order of Canada perhaps?

Mercury poisoning – Fort Chip’s new threat?

On Oct. 31 last year at least 670 million litres of waste water spilled from a containment pond on the Obed Mountain coal mine site near Hinton, Alberta, releasing sediment made up of coal particles, clay and sand. Canada’s National Pollution Release Inventory indicated the slurry contained mercury along with phenathrene, arsenic, cadmium, lead and manganese – all of which are toxic for anything living.

The plume of coal mine waste grew to 100 kilometres in length as it travelled down the Athabasca River. Alberta chief medical officer Dr. James Talbot warned Albertans not to drink the water while the plume passed their communities because mercury levels were nine times higher than normal and the levels of cancer-causing hydrocarbons were four times higher than that allowed in Canadian drinking water.

Alberta Environment was not immediately forthcoming with information regarding the contaminants that had been injected into the river, but did assure everyone that there was no threat from the plume once it passed. They also said the contaminants will eventually settle into the river bed sediments and so will cease to be in the water and as such no threat to human health existed.

Meanwhile, mercury from the smokestacks of the oilsands industry is impacting a 19,000 square-kilometre area, said Environment Canada researchers in late December. Levels have been found to be up to 16 times higher than “background” levels for the region.

Federal scientists stress the mercury loading around the oilsands is low but say mercury is “the No. 1 concern” when it comes to the metal toxins generated by oilsands operations.

Obviously mercury and assorted carcinogens from the two sources will combine in the Athabasca River and be present in the sediments in quantity. Each spring and any other time the river is in flood those sediments will be stirred up. Everything will move on downstream over time. It is logical to conclude that the highest concentrations will eventually end up in the Peace Athabasca delta, not far from the Fort Chipewyan water supply.

Mercury can bioaccumulate in living creatures and chronic exposure can cause Minamata disease, a debilitating neurological syndrome resulting from severe mercury poisoning.

We want to know if Alberta Environment and the federal government with their “world class monitoring system” are aware of this, will acknowledge it and will be actively sampling for mercury contamination in the Athabasca River in the coming decade, especially in the vicinity of Fort Chipewyan, on the possibility that mercury may eventually concentrate there at higher than acceptable levels.

We do not mean to cause “undue alarm” with this query, but if our governments’ “world class” studies were transparent, there would be no need to ask, would there?

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