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Outspoken doctor defends letter calling for Frontier rejection

PHOTO. Dr John O'Connor reacted to recent comments from Alberta Premier Jason Kenney concerning a letter from the Canadian Association of Physicians for the Environment (CAPE) calling for the federal government to withhold approval for Teck Resources' Frontier Mine. Supplied by the Rural Health Profession Action Plan.

A local physician responded to Alberta Premier Jason Kenney’s claim about doctors and climate change.

Dr John O’Connor mainly treats patients in Fort McMurray, Fort Chipewyan, Fort McKay, Janvier, and other communities in Wood Buffalo.

He joined several physicians and practitioners in an open letter from the Canadian Association of Physicians for the Environment (CAPE).

Published on Feb. 3, 2020, the letter called for the federal government to withhold approval for Teck Resources’ Frontier Mine.

CAPE addressed the letter to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Environment Minister Jonathan Wilkinson.

O’Connor expressed outrage when he heard Premier Kenney’s response to the letter claiming doctors “aren’t living in the real world” when it comes to addressing climate change.

In a statement, O’Connor said doctors are on the front lines treating patients with climate change-related health issues.

He also pointed to recent examples of this from within the province.

“When people are injured in climate-related disasters like the Calgary flood, the Slave Lake fire and the Fort McMurray fire, who looks after these patients? When we have cancers at increased rates in communities near fossil fuel operations, [or] when children have asthma due to poor air quality related to wildfires – it’s health professionals that care for them.”

CAPE raised concerns about the impact of climate change in the rural hamlet of Fort Chipewyan.

Local effects

In its letter, they noted a 2009 Alberta Cancer Board report found an increased overall cancer rate in the community.

A follow-up report by Alberta Health Services (AHS) in 2014 added cancer rates in Fort Chipewyan between 1992 and 2011 were the same as in the rest of Alberta.

However, AHS noted the rate of bile duct cancer among its residents increased.

O’Connor said the impacts of upstream mining operations impact the environment and those who live in the hamlet.

CAPE mentioned population size, lack of baseline data, and diseases like cancer with long latency periods may impact the numbers.

Nevertheless, O’Connor said the link between climate change and health is conclusive.

“We know from real data gathered by real scientists in the real world that a warming climate is causing serious health issues and creating a spike in natural disasters that are a grave threat to our health and to the future of humanity. Fossil fuel development is spewing carbon pollution into our atmosphere and warming our planet.”

O’Connor said Albertans must find alternatives adding the province can’t fight climate change while continuing fossil fuel development.

Teck’s Frontier mine, proposed for a site about 110 km north of Fort McMurray, would disturb 29,217 hectares of land.

During its 41-year operation, CAPE estimates the mine would produce 260,000 barrels per day of bitumen.

They also estimate it would produce four to six megatonnes of greenhouse gases per year until 2066.

Dr John O’Connor practised in Fort Chipewyan until the Nunee Health Board Society relieved him in 2015.

He lives in Edmonton, practices in Wood Buffalo, and serves on the Board of Directors for the Rural Health Professions Action Plan.