Grounding the data: community-based toxicology in Northern Alberta, Canada
Sarah Blacker (Technical University of Munich)
Paper short abstract:
This paper considers how a collision of evidence practices—toxicology and Indigenous Traditional Knowledge—can bring together different ways of knowing about the presence of contamination and its effects for Indigenous people living upstream of northern Alberta's oil industry.
Paper long abstract:
One of the most important byproducts of Alberta's oil industry are tailings ponds, which are engineered dam and dyke systems that contain the waste products of the bitumen extraction process. Occupying more than 200 square kilometres, tailings ponds contain 1.2 trillion litres of water contaminated with substances such as bitumen, naphthenic acids, cyanide, and heavy metals. Since 2010, tailings ponds have leaked millions of litres of contaminated water into the Athabasca river. The river is an important source of drinking water and food for those who live in its watershed, particularly Indigenous communities. This paper considers an alternative approach to carrying out toxicology studies in the region: a Community-Based Monitoring program in Alberta that uses a "three-track" methodology presenting toxicology data in three distinct forms. The first track collects standard Western scientific toxicology measurements, the second track documents the presence of contamination through Indigenous Traditional Knowledge (TK), and the third track synthesizes the first two forms of evidence, "grounding" the toxicology data in the TK. I focus on negotiations between toxicology practices and TK, highlighting how the TK lends to toxicology a method for measuring change over time by directing practices of sampling as well as through the interpretation of data collected. This paper engages with recent STS scholarship on the politics of measurement, focusing on the generative possibilities of a methodology designed to contribute to decolonizing work in science that highlights conflict between knowledges and renders these tensions productive as an epistemological meeting point.
Toxicity in the 21st century