Tar sands pollutants contaminate traditional First Nations’ foods: Report

“There’s something unique that is happening in Fort Chipewyan. It’s a situation that is alarming and demands attention.” – Stéphane McLachlan, lead researcher

by: Obert Madondo | Published Mon, Jul 7, 2014

First Nations protest before PM Harper's official office during PowerShift 2012 calls on Canada to respect indigenous rights. OBERT MADONDO/The Canadian Progressive

First Nations protest before PM Harper’s official office during PowerShift 2012 calls on Canada to respect indigenous rights. OBERT MADONDO/The Canadian Progressive

Yet another study has confirmed what First Nations have been saying all along: pollutants from the Alberta tar sands are contaminating their traditional foods.

The report, entitled Environmental and Human Health Implications of the Athabasca Oil Sands for the Mikisew Cree First Nation and Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation in Northern Alberta, reveals that the pollutants are poisoning the environments, wildlife and the human health of communities living downstream of the tar sands operations.

The Globe and Mail reports, “New scientific research has found that wild-caught foods in northern Alberta have higher-than-normal levels of pollutants the study associates with oil sands production, but First Nations are already shifting away from their traditional diets out of fears over contamination.”

The study was sponsored by the Mikisew Cree First Nation and Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation.

“There’s something unique that is happening in Fort Chipewyan,” said Stéphane McLachlan, the lead researcher from the University of Manitoba, on Monday. “It’s a situation that is alarming and demands attention.”

According to the Globe, the research “found contaminants in traditional foods such as muskrat and moose, and that aboriginal community members feel less healthy than they did a generation ago.” The Globe adds, “the report will add to calls for sober second thought to ramping up oil sands production.”

“Cancer occurrence increased significantly with participant employment in the oilsands and with the increased consumption of traditional foods and locally caught fish,” said the report.

One of the communities affected by the contamination is the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation.

“The very essence of who are as people comes from the land, from the river system,” says a representative of the First Nation in the video below. “Long before we entered into Treaty, we have lived and continue to live and sustain our people off of the land. If we don’t put down our foot somewhere, it will never stop.”

In 2012, the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation filed a lawsuit against Shell’s proposed Jackpine Mine, challenging the company’s “failure to meet agreements to mitigate impacts from existing tar sands projects.”

Study after study has confirmed that the tar sands are increasingly becoming a threat to water sources, the environment and First Nations communities.

A study by released Environment Canada earlier this year and published in the journal Environmental Science and Technology, confirmed that waste water from tailings ponds contaminates groundwater and seeps into the Athabasca River, the main source of water for the tar sands operations.

Tailings are a toxic by-product of tar sands operations, comprising water, sand, residual bitumen, salts, heavy metals, clay and numerous toxic compounds.

As I said in an earlier blog post, the tailings are a criminal assaults on the Athabasca River:

A criminal assault that’s bound to escalate.

According to the Pembina Institute, a national organization dedicated to advancing clean energy solutions through innovative research, education, consulting and advocacy, tar sands mining uses “three times as much fresh water as conventional oil production.”

Last June, Pembina released a study that forecast the environmental impact of the expansion of the tar sands operations on greenhouse gas emissions, freshwater consumption, and tailings productions.

According to the study, tailings ponds currently cover 176 square kilometres. The ponds contain 830 million cubic metres of tailings waste. Enough waster to cover “the entire city of Vancouver to a depth of over 7 metres.

What’s the role of the Canadian and Alberta governments in all of this?

In the past three years, the Conservative government of Prime Minister Stephen Harper has implemented a series of energy industry-friendly pieces of legislation, including the Canadian Environmental Assessment Act and Navigable Waters Protection Act. These and other legislative measures have effectively removed “protections from 99 per cent of lakes and rivers in Canada,”and fast-tracked environment-harming energy projects.

In March, the Alberta government released the results of a dubious study which claimed that aboriginal communities downstream from the tar sands did not experience higher overall rates of cancer than the norm.

Obert Madondo is an Ottawa-based progressive blogger, and the founder and editor of The Canadian Progressive. Follow him on Twitter.com/Obiemad

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Obert Madondo

Publisher and editor
Obert Madondo is an Ottawa-based independent journalist and progressive political blogger. He's the publisher and editor of The Canadian Progressive.