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Deformed Fish Found Downstream of Tar Sands Mines

First Nations Communities Worried about their Health

Chief Allan Adam, the head of the Fort Chipewyan community in the far north of Alberta, has been fishing in Lake Athabasca for all of his life. His father, now 76 years old, has been fishing there even longer. And neither of them has seen anything like what they pulled from the lake on May 30: two grotesquely deformed, lesion-covered fish.

When they caught the sickly fish, each taken from a different part of the lake, the two Indigenous men immediately figured that it had something to do with the massive tar sands oil mines that lie about 300 kilometers upstream along the Athabasca River. “We have been putting two and two together, and raising concerns about the fast pace of [tar sands] development,” Chief Adam told me in a phone interview this week. “The tailing ponds are leaking and leaching into the rivers, and then going downstream to Lake Athabasca.”

Here in the United States, public opposition to the tar sands has centered on the proposed Keystone XL pipeline: how it could jeopardize the fresh water supplies of the Ogallala Aquifer and how it would increase greenhouse gas emissions by keeping us locked into the petroleum infrastructure. For now, those worries remain hypotheticals. But for the people of Ft. Chipewyan — a community of about 1,200 that is only accessible by plane most of the year — the environmental impacts of the tar sands are already a lived reality. According to a 2009 study by the Alberta Cancer Board, the cancer rate in Ft. Chipewyan is higher than normal. Many of the residents there blame the industrial development south of them for the disproportionate cancer rates.

The deformed fish caught two weeks ago included a northern pike that had lesions along its back and belly and a sucker that was missing many of its scales. Chief Adam says the strange fish are so worrisome because the majority of Ft. Chipewyan residents still rely on traditional foods, including fish from the lake, to eat.

Chief Adam sent the two fish to the labs of the Canadian Cooperative Wildlife Health Centre in Alberta for testing. It will take biologists there several weeks to determine the cause of the deformities.

This isn’t the first time that sickly fish have been pulled from Lake Athabasca. In September 2010, the Ft. Chipewyan band released photos of fish that were also lesion-covered.

The Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation are one of the most active and outspoken critics of the tar sands development. In 2011 the tribe filed a suit against Shell Oil Canada for failing to uphold agreements it had made for two of its open pit mine projects. Chief Adam has said that his tribe may follow the example of the Beaver Lake Cree and challenge proposed tar sands projects on the grounds that increased mining could violate the tribe’s treaty rights to practice hunting and fishing.

“They keep building and building, and something has to give,” Chief Adam says. “And it’s the environment down here in Lake Athabasca. We want answers before we want further development. If they won’t give us answers, we will give them further resistance.”

Jason Mark, Editor, Earth Island JournalJason Mark photo
Jason Mark is a writer-farmer with a deep background in environmental politics. In addition to his work in the Earth Island Journal, his writings have appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle, The Nation, The Progressive, Utne Reader, Orion, Gastronomica, Grist.org, Alternet.org, E magazine, and Yes!  He is a co-author of Building the Green Economy: Success Stories from the Grassroots and also co-author with Kevin Danaher of Insurrection: Citizen Challenges to Corporate Power.
He is writing a book about wildness in the twenty-first century, to be published next year by Island Press.

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Comments

I used to live in Fort Chipewyan and taught school there.  I know the people in Chip.  You have no idea how many of the 1200 or so people are really sick up there.  Bowel cancers, Lupus, and cholangiocarcinoma—which is cancer of the bile duct.  This is type of cancer might be found in once in a population of 100,000.  Up in Chip there are 8 known cases.  Don’t tell me the Tar Sands have nothing to do with this. Don’t tell me that it’s the Natives’ own fault for not having a “regular” diet.  But do you ever hear about this on the news?  No, you only hear when a few ducks have died after landing on the tailing ponds and the oil companies quickly spin this as a one-time thing and have massive apologies on the news. Yet the condition the Native population in Chip are quietly swept under the carpet.  Don’t make me laugh. It’s a crying shame.

By Wally Zeisig on Sun, June 17, 2012 at 11:01 am

This reminds me of the unexpected falling birds from the sky in several different locations/states a few years ago. Did they ever determine what killed those birds?

I think if the truth be known…we were sold out to corporate America a very long time ago. :-(

By DocBio on Sun, June 17, 2012 at 3:41 am

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