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Update:  In January 2013, a team of scientists, led by Dr. John Smol from Queen's University, released a study revealing evidence strongly suggesting that the Alberta oil sands have been sending toxins into the air and water for decades. They confirmed the groundbreaking research of Dr. David Schindler, documented in Tipping Point: The Age of the Oil Sands which originally aired on The Nature of Things in January 2011. The new study shows that toxins around the Athabasca oil sands have increased in areas at least 90 kilometres away.  Levels of industry-related chemicals have nearly doubled since the 1960s, and have risen sharply since the 1990s.

Tipping Point: The Age of the Oil Sands originally aired in January 2011 as a two-hour presentation. 

Highway 63 north of Fort McMurray, Syncrude base plant in background

Tipping Point: The Age of the Oil Sands is a two-hour visual tour de force, taking viewers inside the David and Goliath struggle playing out within one of the most compelling environmental issues of our time.  

In an oil-scarce world, we know there are sacrifices to be made in the pursuit of energy.  What no one expected was that a tiny native community downriver from Canada's oil sands would reach out to the world and be heard.

Directed by Edmonton filmmakers Tom Radford and Niobe Thompson of Clearwater Documentary, and hosted by Dr. David Suzuki, this special presentation of The Nature of Things goes behind the headlines to reveal how a groundbreaking new research project triggered a tipping point for the Alberta oil sands.

For years, residents of the northern Alberta community of Fort Chipewyan, down the Athabasca River from the oil sands, have been plagued by rare forms of cancer. They were concerned that toxins from oil sands production might be to blame.  Industry and government, meanwhile, claimed production in the oil sands contributed zero pollution to the Athabasca River.

But in 2010, new and independent research measured pollution in waters flowing through the oil sands and discovered higher-than-expected levels of toxins, including arsenic, lead and mercury, coming from industrial plants. Leading the research was renowned freshwater scientist Dr. David Schindler (read more about David Schindler). At the same time, the leaders of tiny Fort Chipewyan took their battle to the boardrooms of global oil companies, demanding change.

Leading the campaign was Dene Elder Francois Paulette, whose battles with Ottawa a generation ago launched the era of modern land claims.  From New York to Copenhagen to Oslo and to the oil sands themselves, our camera followed Paulette on his relentless search for allies.  When he finally enlisted the support of Avatar director James Cameron, Paulette created a storm of controversy for Alberta's oil sands industry.

By the end of 2010, both Schindler's alarming discovery of toxic pollution and the media attention Cameron's visit had raised were putting federal and provincial environmental policy under serious pressure.  Separate reports by Canada's Auditor General, the Royal Society of Canada, and a panel of experts appointed by then-Environment Minister Jim Prentice revealed a decade of incompetent pollution monitoring, paid for by the oil industry in Alberta's oil sands.

Dr. David Schindler holding a fish from the river.

The documentary's climax shows how Professor Schindler's research findings, and the determination of Fort Chipewyan residents, led to change.  In December 2010, a special scientific review by the high-level federal panel declared environmental monitoring standards in the oil sands to be seriously flawed. In a dramatic reversal of their previous position, both the Federal and Alberta governments announced steps to improve their pollution monitoring.  The age of innocence for the oil sands is over.

Tipping Point was directed by Niobe Thompson and Tom Radford for Clearwater Documentary in association with CBC-TV. A theatrical version of the documentary, narrated by Sigourney Weaver, is now playing in film festivals around the world.

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