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Scenes From the Tar Wars

As Canada scrambles to dig up some of the world's dirtiest oil, a bush doctor tracks mysterious diseases, poisoned rivers, and shattered lives.

Founded in 1788, Fort Chipewyan is the oldest continuously inhabited settlement in Alberta. Located by three rivers feeding into one of the largest freshwater deltas in the world, it was a hub of commerce at a time when waterways were superhighways. At the height of the fur trade in the 1800s, it shipped off thousands of beaver pelts to Europe. After the beaver-fur hat lost its allure in the 1840s, Fort Chipewyan languished for decades, doing without electricity until 1959 and without an airstrip until a few years later.

After O'Connor was hired as the town's fly-in doctor in 2000, he was struck by the number of people wandering the streets with serious ailments—more than he'd seen in other native communities. "Going to Fort Chip, you hit the ground running," he says as we land. "You are working from the very start."

Sure enough, as O'Connor lugs his bags across the runway, he's hailed by a man who complains of being "holed up in bed for days." O'Connor also expresses concern about Stan, the airport baggage handler, who is due for an important medical test. "Don't miss it," O'Connor chides as he climbs into a minivan. The man behind the wheel, thin and hunchbacked, confesses to skipping his own clinic appointment that morning. But he feels healthy enough. "Boy, I hope it's a good day tomorrow," he says. "I want to go kill my moose."

We drive past mossy hillsides of birch and aspen to the lakefront, where we turn into a row of modest homes and trailers, passing oil drums fished from the river and repurposed as trash bins. The minivan stops at the small wood-plank community center. Inside, O'Connor adds his fruit tray to a spread that includes beef, pasta, and salad but little of the abundant wild meat and fish that many locals traditionally subsisted on. John Michael, a trapper and fisherman with a red, leathery face, says he has a stack of caribou and walleye in his freezer but is afraid to dig into it too often. Groceries are expensive, he says, "but fuck, I don't eat food anyways. I just buy my beer."

Ten years ago, as the tar sands boom was just getting under way, Michael and other commercial fishermen began to haul in unusual numbers of deformed fish from Lake Athabasca. Walleye came in with humpbacks, crooked tails, pug faces, and bulging eyes. In 2002, an elder named Raymond Ladouceur, who'd been fishing the lake longer than anyone, dropped off 200 pounds of freakish-looking walleye at the doorstep of the Fish and Wildlife Division in Fort McMurray. Instead of testing them, officials left the fish outside to rot. With no official word on what was wrong with the disfigured fish, fishermen who pulled in whitefish and northern pike with red scales and large lumps on their sides and emaciated, jug-headed trout simply tossed them back into the water. Michael tells me, "We don't like talking about 'em."

In the past few years, a tide of serious illnesses has passed through Fort Chip's tiny health clinic. In a period of a few months, O'Connor treated half a dozen people with thyroid disorders. He's diagnosed multiple cases of lung, colon, bladder, and prostate cancer—many more than he'd seen in other First Nations communities in Alberta. In 2003 he determined that a man with jaundiced skin and weight loss was suffering from cholangiocarcinoma, a rare and virulent bile-duct cancer that normally afflicts 1 person in every 100,000.

O'Connor knew just how devastating this form of cancer could be because his father, an encyclopedia salesman in Limerick, Ireland, had been diagnosed with it 10 years earlier. "Six weeks later," O'Connor recalls, "he was dead."

At first, O'Connor shared his budding concerns about Fort Chip's health with only a handful of friends and colleagues—until he learned of Shell's proposal to expand its mining operation near the banks of the Athabasca. The oil company wasn't required to mitigate the $10 billion project's effects on the people and wildlife living in Fort Chip, because, officially, there were none. O'Connor became the first medical doctor in Alberta to publicly suggest otherwise.

In late 2004, O'Connor diagnosed a second case of cholangiocarcinoma in a 60-year-old school bus driver who died a few weeks later. Shell was deadlocked with the locals over how to study its project's impact, so O'Connor suggested to a friend who worked for the national health agency that it perform its own studies. By then, a study by Suncor had found elevated levels of arsenic in some local moose meat. The company's scientists also found that lifetime exposure to arsenic in the moose meat could result in as many as 453 additional cases of cancer for every 100,000 residents.

The anecdotal evidence that something was wrong was mounting: Fort Chipewyan's hunters complained that their duck and muskrat tasted watery and bland, that moose livers were enlarged and spotted white, and that when they boiled river water it left a viscous brown scum on the pot. "It's got so bloody many chemicals coming down in that water system today," says Ladouceur, who's stopped drinking straight from the river as he'd done since childhood. Many Fort Chip residents have even forsaken the town's purified tap water, struggling to afford the bottled kind, which sells for $8 a gallon. The clinic often treats the elderly for dehydration.

As things got worse, O'Connor grew tired of waiting for the government to take action. In March 2006, he went on a Canadian Broadcasting Corporation radio program and announced that five people had died from bile-duct cancer in tiny Fort Chip—what one would expect to see in a metropolis more than 400 times its size.

In early 2006, as George W. Bush declared his intention to "make our dependence on Middle Eastern oil a thing of the past," Canadian officials met with the Department of Energy in Houston to discuss increasing tar sands oil production fivefold. "We certainly are very anxious that oil sands development be as swift as possible," Energy Secretary Samuel Bodman told visiting Canadian officials that March. He followed up with a trip to Alberta, telling energy executives there that the United States was committed to reducing its oil imports from overseas and that "no single thing can do more to help us reach that goal than realizing the potential of the oil sands in Alberta."

With several daily nonstop flights linking Calgary and Houston, and an ExxonMobil pipeline that had once pumped Texas oil to Illinois being retrofitted to send Canadian synthetic crude to the Gulf Coast, Alberta's envoy to Capitol Hill cheered, "We are seamless with Houston." The province has opened an office in the Canadian Embassy in Washington to promote its oil interests (the only provincial office of its kind). In the summer of 2006, a giant tar sands dump truck was parked on the Mall for the Smithsonian's annual Folklife Festival, a symbol of "the living traditions that make and sustain Alberta's unique culture."

In Fort Chipewyan, the tar sands hold both promise and peril. Young people grumble about the oil companies' practice of "consulting" with elders, currying favor by handing out payments and "door prizes" such as propane lanterns and microwaves at public meetings. Raymond Ladouceur wonders if fears of contamination could cause the market for the town's walleye—white-tablecloth restaurants in New York City and Boston—to dry up.

But more than that, he wonders who will keep fishing. The town is aging, while the young—including his daughter, three sisters, and a brother—have set off to seek their fortunes in the tar sands. "We are going to destroy everything, we as human beings," he says. "Our greed is going to kill us. And in the end, with all the money we are going to have, and nothing to eat, no water to drink, no air to breathe—what is the good of it? It's just a lousy piece of paper."

"The way Raymond lives today, we wouldn't be able to live like that," she tells me.

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