Canadian health authorities announced today that they would launch a “comprehensive” review of cancer rates in Fort Chipewyan, a small town 70 miles downstream of Canada’s massive tar sands mines. In 2006, local doctor John O’Connor reported unusually high rates of cancer and other diseases in the town, where many locals subsist on fish and wild game. A few months later, when authorities filed a complaint against O’Connor for “raising undue alarm,” they kicked off an epic dispute between the government and industry on one side and O’Connor, locals, and environmentalists on the other.
At the heart of the debate is whether Canada can continue to mine the tar sands, which now serve as the single largest source of U.S. foreign oil, without destroying its environment and poisoning its citizens. The impact of the tar sands on global warming is clear, but the health concerns of Native American groups may ultimately do more to curtail the sands–the world’s largest strip mines. In the weeks since Mother Jones published a comprehensive story on O’Connor’s fight, environmental pressure on the government has mounted. In late April hundreds of ducks were poisoned in a tar sands tailings pond, prompting renewed protests and a government pledge to investigate. The latest move by health authorities shows that the environmental health threats of the Canadian tar sands remain, to say the least, a sticky issue.