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Tuesday, 10 December 2013

Oil and Gas - the untold story of community left behind

To conclude the series on oil and gas, we asked a dedicated social media enthusiast colleague to reflect on the consequences of the boom and bust cycles on communities that have given up their healthy predominately males to support the boom. Follow her on Twitter with her over 1500 other followers at @Monika_Dutt

As a Medical Officer of Health (MOH), I work to approach issues surrounding resource development from an evidence-based perspective, weighing risks and benefits, and adding my voice to discussions as warranted. This may mean a range of activities including participation through the Environmental Assessment process, responding to concerned citizens, attending community meetings, or discussions and planning with local councilors and other partners.

As someone who is now, and has been in the past, an MOH in post-industrial communities, I’m also acutely aware of the toll industry can take on communities. As a Deputy MOH in northern Saskatchewan, I walked through the eerie setting of Uranium City, the town that once housed about five thousand people who were centred on uranium mining. When the mines closed in 1982, the town collapsed economically, and most residents left. Now what are left are crumbling houses, many with appliances still visible, the Candu High School with writing on its chalkboards, and a desolate skating rink. About two hundred people still live in the community.

I came to Cape Breton in 2012, where I witnessed the end of another environmental health saga. The waste that was contained in the Sydney Tar Ponds from coke ovens was globally infamous. In September 2013, a stunning park opened on the site, marking the culmination of years of controversy, work, and financial investment.

The closing of the steel factory on that site, as well as the closing of coal mines across Cape Breton Island, has left both a strong sense of history, as well as wide social and economic gaps that the residents of the island are struggling to rebuild from. Many have felt compelled to leave the island to participate in another boom economy, that of the oil sands in Alberta. Strident efforts are being made to reinvent the local economy, but that process takes time.

Although anecdotally most Cape Bretoners can name friends and relatives working out west, there is little sense of the number of migrant workers or the health impacts this phenomenon is having on the island. One researcher at Cape Breton University, Dr. Doug Lionais, has completed qualitative studies assessing the health impacts on the workers, usually men, and their partners, usually women. Many partners described a sense of hopelessness, as having no other alternatives for income, and as connecting emotional and physical ailments with their situations. Many workers described liking their jobs, but resenting the living conditions, and described having to shut parts of themselves down when going to work.

Further research is underway to gain a better sense of individual and community health impacts of having workers in Alberta while having a partner and/or family in Cape Breton. It seems the impacts are significant, and it is difficult to determine whether the benefits outweigh the costs.

Greater understanding of the health impacts of boom economies, both in the immediate area of the resource development, as well as more distant areas they might impact, are necessary in order to truly make decisions about whether to proceed with resource development. In line with this imperative, Dr. Eilish Cleary, the Chief Medical Officer of Health of New Brunswick, completed a health impact assessment in September 2012 on shale gas development in that province. In it she provided recommendations in these areas:

  1. Protection of Health and Community Wellbeing Related to Changes in the Social Environment
  2. Protection of Health Related to Changes in Both the Social and Physical Environments
  3. Protection of Health Related to Changes in the Physical Environment
  4. Protection of Future Generations
  5. Implementation and Oversight

This type of assessment is essential, in particular with significant resource development projects. The implications of the projects can be great in the present and the future and need to be factored into risk/benefit. The benefits that resource development brought to Cape Breton, and the downfall that its ending created, are a lesson, the ramifications of which are still being explored and experienced. The lessons connected to resource development continue here, given the presence of the Alberta oil sands and the understandable lure for Atlantic Canadians seeking work.

1 comment:

  1. From a dedicated reader submitted to drphealth@gmail.com. The personalization of the story pulls a the heart.

    I find this blog very interesting, as it really hits home for me. My father worked at the steel plant, my grandfather, uncles, great grandfather, great uncles, I grew up knowing first hand the environmental devastation the tar ponds created, the health impacts and the economic hardships. I studied it at CBU. So it's interesting to hear the reflections of a local MHO and of the studies being done at CBU. I agree with what she's says and here is my thoughts although it might sound redundant.

    I have many friends and relatives who now travel to the oil sands, work rotations weeks at time away from family and then return for a week or two and back out.

    The impact on community health is very interesting to me maybe because I know so much about it. For instance, my sister, works everyday and then runs three girls to drama, dance, cheerleading, she takes care of general contract work at home, hiring painters, roofers, builders etc, paying bills, fixing cars, buying cars, dealing with everyday life issues by herself because her husband works in Alberta.

    It causes an incredible amount of stress on them as parents, their marriage and on their children, as it does on other families I know. You have young men leaving to work and their wife's/partners working plus taking over their husbands role within the family. Even things like lack of volunteers such as fire fighters, coaches for teams etc. are impacted. It's like having a community of mostly single moms with the extra income. It is stressful and very unhealthy in my opinion and one of the main reasons my husband and I didn't return to the island.

    However, the economic devastation from the mine closures, steel plant closure and fishery decline left a very high unemployment rate and made this life style very appealing for those wanting to work. I think those leaving to support the boom in Alberta are leaving a wake behind that is likely negative adding to an already unhealthy community.

    It has always bothered me that government programs did not try to bring in other businesses into the these communities so impacted by primary industry shut downs nor implement programs to make it easier for people to start up businesses. It's always bothered me that programs to help increase health in this area were never really financially supported. Cape Breton is a wonderful place where people have a history of being strongly bonded by tough times: high unemployment rates, high cancer rates, aging population (because the biggest export is young people), obesity rates seem high, smoking etc. I think it is so worth the studies to look into the health impacts because it's a good place to do so with a long history.