Concerns raised over oil industry's possible role with health study


Hanneke Brooymans – September 5, 2010

FORT CHIPEWYAN, Alta. - Residents of this northern Alberta town oppose a provincial proposal to have the oilsands industry participate in a health study on cancer rates. Industry members would sit on the oversight committee managing the study, according to the proposal.

``I don't believe industry should be part of this committee,'' said Steve Courtoreille, a councillor of the Mikisew Cree First Nation. ``If there are people sitting on the oversight committee that are connected (to industry), they're going to have instructions as to what steps they have to take to look after the best interests of who they're serving.''

The provincial government expressed interest in the study after a report from the Alberta Cancer Board in February 2009 stated cancer rates were 30 per cent higher than expected in Fort Chipewyan.

Documents obtained by The Edmonton Journal show the Nunee Health Board received recommendations of the physician-health working group on Aug. 4. A chart shows the management oversight committee includes industry, the Alberta and federal governments, and the community.

Dr. John O'Connor, a Fort Chipewyan physician who first raised concerns about the unusual rates of cancer and other illnesses in the community, said he is part of the working group, as is his colleague, Dr. William Griffin.

``We'd never discussed industry being involved in any respect,'' O'Connor said recently during a break at a Fort Chipewyan medical station. ``It was a very unpleasant finding. . . . It makes no sense that an entity, an industry, that might in the end, be found to be involved in producing illness in this community should be on an oversight committee. It makes no sense at all.''

Alberta Health Minister Gene Zwozdesky, who was away part of August, said Friday he did not know about industry involvement.

``The specific point . . . was never raised at any meetings that I was at,'' he said, echoing O'Connor. He wouldn't comment when asked if he thought industry presence on the committee was a good idea.

It's not clear how industry was added to the committee list.

Chief Allan Adam of the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation said his organization has been working with the Alberta government to assemble a work plan, budget and terms of reference for a health study, but nothing has been formalized.

``They've developed some kind of work schedule,'' he said. ``But then when you look at the team that sits on the health study commission, it's all comprised of representatives from the Alberta government, Health Canada and industry, the majority of them. So when you have two doctors that sit on behalf of the community, well, you know . . . that any recommendation that comes forward we're going to be outvoted at the table. So does that work? In my view, it does not work at all.''

Unless the suggestion is removed from the plan, Adam said he could not support it, but the final decision is up to the community.

The health study is being planned as further science on oilsands-related contamination emerges.

A study released last week and led by University of Alberta ecologists David Schindler and Erin Kelly suggests oilsands development increases pollutants in the Athabasca River. Schindler said he is particularly concerned about the increase of mercury, a neurotoxin, in fish in the watershed. The Athabasca River flows north to the Peace-Athabasca delta.

Timothy Caulfield, Canada Research Chair in Health Law at the U of A, said it's essential that any analysis of the community be independent.

``The public needs to be able to trust the conclusions,'' he said in an email. ``If the public believes there is a vested interested, as when the government seems to dismiss distressing conclusions, skepticism will reign.''

The Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers says industry supports a scientific study that looks at all pollution sources, as well as nutrition, lifestyle, infectious agents and stress.

``Industry does not demand oversight of a health study,'' said association spokesman Travis Davies in an email. ``We want a science-based health study both the community and the medical profession, and therefore other Albertans, will trust and will accept.''

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