Tag Archives: cancer

Whistleblowing Alberta oil sands doctor fired abruptly

Repost from the National Observer, Vancouver BC

Whistleblowing Alberta oil sands doctor fired abruptly

By Warren Bell in Opinion | May 11th 2015
Photo by Andrew S. Wright of Dr. John O’Connor in Ft. McKay medical centre

My friend and colleague Dr. John O’Connor has just been fired, without cause, and without advance notice.

After 15 years of committed service, his termination came on May 8 without the slightest warning.

“Please be advised that Nunee Health Board Society no longer requires your professional services to provide any patient consultation or on-call services to the staff at the Fort Chipewyan Health Center.”

And just in case that wasn’t hard-edged enough:

“In addition, you have no authority to speak to or represent the Nunee Health Board Society in any way to any other individual, party or entity (sic)”

So hastily was this letter of dismissal sent to Dr. John O’Connor, on-call family physician for the 1200 citizens of the remote community of Fort Chipewyan, that there was no date on the top of the letter, and not even a period at the end of one of the sentences.

Even more peculiar – and suggestive of behind-the-scene machinations – the letter carelessly contained a request that he submit invoices by April 30 for services not already compensated.

The letter, from Roxanne Marcel, chairperson of the Nunee Health Board Society, came as an attachment to one-line email sent to him last Friday by Caroline Adam, health director of the same body. O’Connor said neither has responded to his repeated attempts to contact them.

A few hours before he was fired, Dr. O’Connor said he had spoken to two medical colleagues associated with the community, who made no mention of any plans to replace him. Shortly after, he received the notice of termination.

Then he received an email thread indicating that plans to replace him had already been established, prior to his conversation with his two colleagues.

This extraordinary sequence of events has all the hallmarks of a politically motivated drama.

That’s because John O’Connor is no ordinary family physician. Twelve years ago, he diagnosed an unusual number of cancers of the bile duct in the tiny northern hamlet of Fort Chipewyan, located downstream of the oil sands. The condition is familiar to Dr. O’Connor because his own father died from this same illness in 1993.

He also noted higher-than-average rates of other kinds of diseases, as well as persistent reports from local hunters and fishermen of unpleasant changes in the wildlife in the region – such as dead and disappearing muskrat, and fishes with strange deformities. He wondered if these circumstances had to do with the pollution from the oil sands companies.

In 2006, the CBC reporter contacted O’Connor, who said publicly, for the first time, that he felt there was a looming public health issue in the region.

Dr. John O’Connor’s data was challenged by Health Canada and public health officials in Alberta, and he was threatened with loss of his license because he had raised “undue alarm”.

Eventually he was cleared of all charges and complaints, but the process, which took several years to resolve, changed him forever.

Last year he told Desmog Canada that he emerged a “much tougher person.”

Nothing, however, prepared this family physician for what happened a couple of days ago.

“I am at a huge loss to explain this,” he said. “I feel like I’ve lost a family member.”

The timing of his abrupt dismissal is curious. About three weeks ago, renowned physician Dr. Esther Tailfeathers, who had been spending a week every month in Fort Chipewyan for the last three years, suddenly ended her service, without explaining why to the staff at the nursing station where she worked.

In a long article published in the Edmonton Journal on March 29, she had commented that “it is really difficult to keep nurses in the community and it is certainly hard to recruit physicians.

Dr. Tailfeathers was loved and respected in the community. The nurse in charge of the health clinic called her “really amazing”. Her departure was just as mysterious as the abrupt dismissal of Dr. O’Connor.

John O’Connor has been supplying on-call services, 24/7, for 15 years. He has answered calls while traveling in other countries, from holiday locations, and even from the shower, walking nursing and paramedic staff in Fort Chipewyan through challenging medical emergencies whenever they occurred. On a number of occasions over the years, he offered to reduce his fees if the Nunee Health Board Society was having trouble meeting them. In fact, reduced his invoice for August 2014 to February 2015 by 50 per cent at the request of Caroline Adam, the person who sent him the one-line email on May 8.

That a respected First Nation physician would suddenly disappear from the community, and then three weeks later Dr. O’Connor would be abruptly terminated raises important questions as to what is going on behind the scenes.

Whatever the cause of his dismissal, we can all be sure of one thing: Dr. O’Connor, after a decade-long crusade to draw international attention to the health problems of those living downstream of the oil sands, is unlikely disappear quietly.

Aided by his many friends and colleagues, he will undoubtedly discover who is responsible for ushering him out the door, cutting him off from the community he loves, and and continue advocating for the health of that community.

His story will continue to unfold.

    Mr. Governor, kill the oil ‘watchdog’ – Tom Hayden on California’s pathetic fracking regulator

    Repost from The San Francisco Chronicle

    Watchdog or lapdog of Big Oil?

    By Tom Hayden, April 24, 2015 4:32pm
    LOST HILLS, CA - MARCH 24:  The sun rises over an oil field over the Monterey Shale formation where gas and oil extraction using hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, is on the verge of a boom on March 24, 2014 near Lost Hills, California. Critics of fracking in California cite concerns over water usage and possible chemical pollution of ground water sources as California farmers are forced to leave unprecedented expanses of fields fallow in one of the worst droughts in California history. Concerns also include the possibility of earthquakes triggered by the fracking process which injects water, sand and various chemicals under high pressure into the ground to break the rock to release oil and gas for extraction though a well. The 800-mile-long San Andreas Fault runs north and south on the western side of the Monterey Formation in the Central Valley and is thought to be the most dangerous fault in the nation. Proponents of the fracking boom saying that the expansion of petroleum extraction is good for the economy and security by developing more domestic energy sources and increasing gas and oil exports.   (Photo by David McNew/Getty Images) Photo: David McNew, Getty Images
    LOST HILLS, CA – MARCH 24: The sun rises over an oil field over the Monterey Shale formation where gas and oil extraction using hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, is on the verge of a boom on March 24, 2014 near Lost Hills, California. Critics of fracking in California cite concerns over water usage and possible chemical pollution of ground water sources as California farmers are forced to leave unprecedented expanses of fields fallow in one of the worst droughts in California history. Concerns also include the possibility of earthquakes triggered by the fracking process which injects water, sand and various chemicals under high pressure into the ground to break the rock to release oil and gas for extraction though a well. The 800-mile-long San Andreas Fault runs north and south on the western side of the Monterey Formation in the Central Valley and is thought to be the most dangerous fault in the nation. Proponents of the fracking boom saying that the expansion of petroleum extraction is good for the economy and security by developing more domestic energy sources and increasing gas and oil exports. (Photo by David McNew/Getty Images)

    Jerry Brown perhaps should put his DOGGR to sleep. Not his family dog, Sutter, but DOGGR — the Division of Oil, Gas and Geothermal Resources — the 100-year-old agency that’s been handing out permits for drilling in the Central Valley without records, oversight or enforcement of 21st century environmental laws.

    The agency was created prior to Upton Sinclair’s 1927 novel, “Oil!,” on which Daniel Day-Lewis’ 2007 film, “There Will Be Blood,” was based. Oil was to California what cotton was to Mississippi, a booming industry based on subsistence labor, migration, racism, vigilantism, and government officials looking the other way.

    Oil wells in the Midway-Sunset oil field in Fellows (Kern County). Monterey Shale, largely untouched territory near Midway-Sunset, could represent the future of California's oil industry and a potential arena for conflict between drillers and the state’s powerful environmental interests. Photo: Jim Wilson, New York Times
    Oil wells in the Midway-Sunset oil field in Fellows (Kern County). Monterey Shale, largely untouched territory near Midway-Sunset, could represent the future of California’s oil industry and a potential arena for conflict between drillers and the state’s powerful environmental interests. Photo: Jim Wilson, New York Times

    Times change but slowly. Current Kern County Sheriff Donny Youngblood, who says Kern ought to be a county in Arizona, opposes President Obama’s immigrant-rights policy. There are an estimated 66,000 undocumented immigrants in Kern County, whose population is majority Latino. More than 22 percent of its people live below the poverty line, 69 percent of them within one mile of an oil well.

    The barren place is a bit like Mississippi in the ’60s, powerful enough to defy progressive norms or laws on the national level. The federal government in 1982 transferred its power to California to monitor and regulate the 42,000 injection wells that dump toxic waste fluids into groundwater. That monitoring didn’t happen, a lapse that the feds say is shocking. The human carcinogen benzene has been detected in fracking wastewater at levels 700 times over federal safety standards. Health impact studies are inadequate, but Kern community hospital managers say the county has one of the highest cancer rates in the country, which is expected to double in 10 years.

    How did it happen that the Obama Environmental Protection Agency is pushing the Jerry Brown EPA to comply with modern environmental law? The same Gov. Jerry Brown signed that 1982 agreement, giving Big Oil an opportunity to oversee itself. Those were the days when President Ronald Reagan’s Anne Gorsuch ran the federal EPA, perhaps convincing California that it could do a better job.

    As a result of the 1982 transfer, the feds say California has failed at oversight and record-keeping. With the feds watching, the state has two years to implement a meaningful monitoring plan.

    Brown has tried to fix the problem, which undercuts his claim that drilling and controversial fracking can be addressed by beefed up regulations instead of a moratorium on fracking that most environmentalists want. He has added more professional staff to DOGGR and installed a new director, Steve Bohlen, who promises to clean up the place. Since last summer, the agency has shut down 23 injection wells out of 2,500.

    The preference of one experienced state official is to peel back DOGGR, move it to Cal EPA and turning it into a real regulatory agency instead of a lapdog for the oil industry. But Brown officials prefer the uphill task of reforming DOGGR from within, and have signaled they will veto any bill that brings the agency under state EPA jurisdiction. The Legislature is going along with his incremental approach, so far.

    The task will be daunting. The DOGGR mandate has been to drill, baby, drill, says state Sen. Hannah-Beth Jackson, D-Santa Barbara. DOGGR’s legal mandate calls for “increasing the ultimate recovery of underground hydrocarbons,” not determining whether drilling or fracking are sustainable and safe for aquifers or human health. Her SB545 is still a work in progress, however. It stops the archaic custom of drilling permits being obtained and accepted without any written approvals or findings, which upsets the feds and shuts out the public. Until recently, an oil company simply gave notice of its intent to drill and was entitled to proceed unless the agency said no in writing within 10 days. Under Jackson’s bill, an application to drill will require written approval, and the paperwork will be posted on the DOGGR website. In addition, the bill will limit the Kern custom of keeping records about chemicals and water impacts confidential, even when a well has gone into production.

    However, the bill’s language makes oversight optional by saying that DOGGR “may” require an operator to implement a monitoring plan. Decision-making power is devolved to the division district deputy in Kern, which is like expecting a Mississippi sheriff to carry out federal law in 1964 — or the present Kern sheriff to enforce immigration law today. Nor does the bill give the state EPA or health experts any shared authority in the permitting process.

    Well derricks crowd the Kern River oil field in Bakersfield in 1912. Photo: Chevron, SFC
    Well derricks crowd the Kern River oil field in Bakersfield in 1912. Photo: Chevron, SFC

    At the heart of the scandal is the historic power of Big Oil against the emergence of California’s clean-energy economy with its priorities of renewable resources and efficiency. The Democratic majority in Sacramento is hobbled by a pro-drilling contingent, led by Republicans with a number of Central Valley Democrats. The oil lobby spent $9 million in 2014 in a failed attempt to exempt themselves from the state’s cap-and-trade law. The effort was led by Assemblyman Henry Perea, D-Fresno, along with 16 Democratic legislators. In a more striking example, state Sen. Michael Rubio, D-Bakersfield, left his seat in 2013 to begin lobbying for Chevron, one of the major firms along with Occidental Petroleum operating in Kern’s oil fields. The oil lobby is spending large sums to cultivate friendly Democratic candidates and underwrite advertising campaigns warning of a “hidden gas tax” if their privileges are threatened.

    Many Sacramento insiders believe that Brown has made concessions to Big Oil in order to protect his considerable progress toward clean-energy goals while not confronting the industry the way he took on the nuclear lobby in the ’70s. That’s understandable, if it works. Now, however, his regulatory reputation needs rebuilding. What if his DOGGR won’t hunt? What if it’s beyond reform? What will the governor and Legislature do if facing open defiance from the powers that be in Kern on a range of issues from clean air and water to the protection of children’s health to environmental justice? With the drought on everyone’s mind, can he allow the state’s aquifers to be threatened by the carcinogenic wastewater of oil production?

    The DOGGR scandal drills deeply into the foundations on which state politics are built.

    Tom Hayden writes, speaks and consults on climate politics and serves on the editorial board of the Nation. His latest book is “Listen Yankee!: Why Cuba Matters.” (Seven Stories Press, 2015).

      Fenceline Communities Face an Ongoing Invisible Assault of Toxics Emanating from Refineries

      Repost from NRDC Switchboard – Diane Bailey’s Blog
      [Editor: In the flurry of warranted high emotion over potential catastrophic derailments and explosions, we risk neglecting the far more widespread and lasting disaster of public health and harm to the environment caused by the production, refining and burning of fossil fuels.  This by our friend Diane Bailey should be required reading for everyone, and especially for those of us living in “fenceline” communities.  – RS]

      Fenceline Communities Face an Ongoing Invisible Assault of Toxics Emanating from Refineries

      By Diane Bailey, ‎November ‎18, ‎2014
      Diane Bailey
      Diane Bailey, Senior Scientist, Natural Resources Defense Council

      Drive past the other-worldly refinery landscape in Deer Park, Texas and you have to lunge for the recirc button to avoid the sickeningly-sweet chemical odors. That’s not an option for the more than 200,000 people living along the petrochemical complex of the Houston Ship Channel; they can’t press a recirc button to avoid exposure to those chemical fumes. Such is the problem for hundreds of thousands of Americans living in refinery fenceline communities that are often plagued by foul odors and safety risks.

      Houston_Ship_Channel_Galena.jpg

      Photo: U.S. Army Corps of Engineers

      Of much greater concern though, are the invisible impacts of the toxic chemicals emanating from all the towers, pipes and tanks of refineries. Called “fugitive emissions,” these are chemicals that leak or escape not just during accidents, but also during every day operations. For many facilities, chemicals are leaking in greater quantities than from exhaust pipes where they are tracked and reported. Here is a summary of what these chemical pollutants are, health impacts that refinery fenceline communities face, and what can be done about it.

      The Chemicals That Leak Across Fencelines

      Oil refineries release several hundred hazardous air pollutants. Many of these chemical pose serious health hazards even at very low levels of exposure, and some can build up in the environment contaminating fish, soil and even household dust. These chemicals contribute to a wide range of serious health impacts including asthma and respiratory illnesses, developmental impacts like IQ loss, cancer, heart disease, reproductive system impacts including birth defects, damage to a range of organs including the kidneys and liver, and even premature death. Check out a list of fourteen notorious chemicals emanating from refineries below.

      The thing about these chemicals leaking out of refineries – you never know if you’re exposed to them, when and how much. Back in 1999, a few visits to Port Arthur, Texas, home of three large refineries, made me wonder about this; each time I left with a sticky residue on the car, a splitting headache and blurred vision. People reported their kids having rashes all the time. This made a little more sense after rooting through a room at the local branch of the Texas environmental agency (TCEQ) filled with cardboard boxes of records for each of the plants documenting refinery upsets, unplanned releases and accidents, seemingly on a weekly basis.  The plants were spewing chemical fumes “by accident” all the time.

      Whiting Indiana beach near refinery.jpg

      Photo: Whihala Beach – Whiting, Indiana, by David Wilson under Creative Commons licensing.

      Despite the stacks of paperwork though, it was still a mystery who was exposed to what and how much.  One thing was for sure though, a quick look through census data showed that the neighborhoods closest to the refineries and chemical plants were 99 percent non-white and the percent of non-whites in communities much farther away was dramatically lower. Where did the plant managers and other execs live?  This situation is sadly not unique to Port Arthur. It plays out in refinery towns across the U.S. creating hotspots of disproportionate pollution and “cancer alleys” in low income communities of color.

      Health Impacts Documented in Refinery Fenceline Communities

      Community health surveys have long indicated significantly increased illness and health impacts among residents living near refineries and petrochemical complexes. The surveys are validated by the dozens of rigorous peer reviewed studies that have documented community health impacts of pollution from petroleum refineries, finding increased rates of cancer, preterm births, asthma related hospitalizations, and increased mortality in communities around refineries.

      • Cancer: Many studies have found elevated rates of leukemia and lymphomas in residents living close to petrochemical plants.  One major recent study in the industrial heartland of Alberta, Canada, where many refinery/oil upgrading operations are located, found greatly elevated pollutant levels and notably higher rates of leukemia and non-Hodgkin lymphoma compared to neighboring counties.  Scores of other studies have found higher rates of cancer among residents who live closer to refineries (brain, lung, liver, bone, bladder, stomach, kidney and urinary, and other types of cancer).
      • Asthma: Several studies show increased asthma prevalence, emergency room visits for asthma, respiratory symptoms as well as significantly lower lung function among children and residents living close to refineries.
      • Birth Defects: In 2006, the Texas Department of State Health Services found that Corpus Christi, home of “Refinery Row,” had a birth defect rate that was 84 percent higher than the rest of Texas. A follow-up study found that mothers living near refineries and chemical plants had babies with high rates of life-threatening birth defects.
      • Premature Deaths: A recent major study of air pollution related mortalities in the U.S. found that out of over 5,000 cities evaluated, Donaldsonville, Louisiana has the highest mortality rate from air pollution. Nine refineries in the area contribute to the roughly 81 deaths from cardiovascular disease and lung cancer per 100,000 people.

      Wilmington Refinery.jpg

      Photo: Wilmington Refinery, Universal Images Group via Getty Images

      What Can We Do About it?

      This spring, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is slated to finalize a new refinery rule that could be a major step in reducing pollution and monitoring for leaks. Please support this rule by telling Congress to protect our environmental policies instead of interfering with them.

      However, despite the critical need for this rule, the phase in will take many years even if it does get finalized according to a court-ordered schedule. In the meantime we are calling on local authorities to act swiftly to reign in refinery pollution beginning with a 20 by 2020 pledge in the Bay Area. The good news is that the Bay Area Air District voted on October 15th to adopt a policy to prevent increases in refinery emissions that an influx of dirtier, extreme crude oil could cause; and to plan for a 20 percent emission reduction from all refineries by 2020.

      The Bay Area refinery clean up policy goes back to the air district board for further consideration on December 17th, in time to provide a happier holiday for fenceline communities… that is, if the Grinch-like oil industry, claiming that it can’t afford to clean up, doesn’t stop it. The air district needs to hear your support to keep the refinery clean up policy on track.  The massive flaring events last week at the Tesoro refinery turned the sky in Martinez orange, reminding everyone for miles how badly we need refinery clean-up policies.

      tesoro flares.jpg

      Photo: Martinez Environmental Group

      Refinery fenceline communities continue to suffer the ill effects of pollution every day despite ample technology to clean up the mess and a wealthy industry that can surely afford the upgrades.  And we are all fenceline communities when it comes to climate change. Given the stark warning issued earlier this month from the world’s leading scientists in the IPCC report on climate change, noting that we will face “severe, pervasive and irreversible impacts” if we do not act now, it is high time to reign in the super-polluting refining industry.

      14 Notorious Refinery Pollutants

      1. Benzene is a known carcinogen (cancer causing agent), associated with childhood leukemia in particular. High exposures can impact the central nervous system leading to drowsiness, dizziness, irregular heartbeat, nausea, headaches, and depression; reproductive impacts, such as smaller ovaries; and potentially developmental effects such as low birth weight, delayed bone formation, and bone marrow damage.
      2. Toluene is especially harmful to people with asthma. It poses reproductive hazards and can cause headaches, impaired reasoning, memory loss, nausea, impaired speech, hearing, and vision, and over the long term, damage to the liver and kidneys.
      3. Ethylbenzene is a carcinogen. Chronic, low-level exposure can result in kidney damage and hearing loss.
      4. Xylenes can cause difficulty breathing, damage to the lungs, impaired memory, and possible damage to the liver and kidneys. Long term exposure is associated with multiple impacts to the nervous system, blood cell abnormalities, abnormal heartbeat, liver damage, genetic mutations, reproductive system effects, and death due to respiratory failure.
      5. Polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) are a group of over 100 different tar-like chemicals, some of which are mutagens, carcinogens, and developmental toxicants.  PAHs can cross the placenta and harm an unborn fetus, contributing to fetal mortality, increased cancer risk and birth defects. PAHs are also associated with asthma-related symptoms and developmental and cognitive impairment, including lower IQ.
      6. Hydrogen Cyanide exposure at high levels swiftly harms the brain and heart, beginning with rapid breathing, followed by convulsions, and loss of consciousness, and can even cause coma and death. More commonly, low level exposure is associated with breathing difficulties, chest pain, vomiting, blood changes, headaches, and enlargement of the thyroid gland.
      7. 1,3-butadiene causes inflammation of nasal tissues, changes to lung, heart, and reproductive tissues, neurological effects and blood changes; it is a carcinogen associated with cancers of the blood and lymphatic system, and it may also cause birth defects.
      8. Formaldehyde is a carcinogen that can cause asthma or asthma-like symptoms, neurological effects, increased risk of allergies, eczema and changes in lung function.
      9. Arsenic is a carcinogen that poses reproductive and other hazards. In children, in particular, arsenic can cause skin lesions, neurodevelopmental effects like lower IQ, lung disease, and reproductive effects including lower birth weight, spontaneous abortion, and neonatal death.
      10. Chromium (VI) or hexavalent chromium is a carcinogen, primarily affecting the lungs, but also the stomach and intestinal tract. Additional effects include: increased risk of respiratory illness such as pneumonia and bronchitis, gastrointestinal effects including lesions of the stomach and small intestine, hematological effects like anemia, and reproductive effects to males, including lower sperm count and histopathological changes, and complications during pregnancy and childbirth.
      11. Lead is a well-known toxic heavy metal that is particularly hazardous to children, severely impacting development and cognitive functioning, resulting in lower IQ scores, attention deficit problems and other behavioral impacts. Lead exposure is also associated with other neurological, hematological, and immune effects; cancer; cardiovascular and renal effects in adults; and reproductive effects, such as lower sperm counts and spontaneous abortions. There is no safe level of exposure to lead.
      12. Mercuryis a highly neurotoxic contaminant that can bio-accumulate in food such as fish. Health effects of mercury include neurological, developmental, and behavioral problems, such as lower IQ, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), and impaired memory and motor skills. Exposure is also associated with cardiovascular effects including increased risks of heart attacks, increased blood pressure, and thickening of arteries.
      13. Nickel is associated with chronic dermatitis, respiratory impacts and potentially also reproductive impacts. Various nickel compounds are carcinogenic and can also have cardiovascular effects in particulate form.
      14. Hydrogen fluoride or Hydrofluoric acid (HF) is a fatal poison that is highly corrosive and can burn skin or lungs on contact, though symptoms of exposure can be delayed for days. Chronic exposure can lead to lung disease and damaged vision. Other health impacts include nausea, vomiting, gastric pain, low blood pressure, irregular heartbeat, seizures, fluid build-up in the lungs, lung collapse and ultimately death, particularly in situations of accidental release.