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Lutsel K’e chief suspects historic satellite crash may be causing cancer cases

Łutsel K’e chief says recent rates in cancer deaths in community ‘not normal’
A piece of non-radioactive debris from the Soviet nuclear-powered Cosmos 954 satellite crash in 1978 is called ‘the stovepipe’ and is in storage at the Prince of Wales Northern Heritage Centre. More than 40 years since the satellite fell out of orbit from space, community members from Łutsel K’e Dene First Nation fear that there still could be radioactive debris from in the environment that is causing cancer-related deaths. Simon Whitehouse/NNSL photo

Chief James Marlowe of the Łutsel K’e Dene First Nation wasn’t even 10 years old when the news of a nuclear-powered satellite plummeting from outer space reached his community.

The infamous Soviet Cosmos 954 fell out of orbit in late January 1978 and the world was left in wonder as to where it would land., Łutsel K’e — then known as Snowdrift — became among the remote communities that gained international attention as the remains of the satellite scattered across the east and south of Great Slave Lake.

More than 40 years later, Marlowe says he believes the community is still suffering from the negative impacts of potential radiation poisoning of the land and water and he wants the federal government to help address it.

“Right now I am concerned as Chief of Łutsel K’e Dene First Nation because of recent deaths in the community related to cancers,” he explained. “It seems like in the past few years almost every death in the community is cancer related.

“We think that the effects of Cosmos in 1978 are now affecting our members. It has almost been 50 years and things are starting to happen in the community to people of all ages.”

The Canadian and American governments had conducted flyover and ground surveys for months following the crash. Canada has stated that the amount of radioactivity in the environment from the satellite had been minimal largely because the satellite was designed to burn up in the atmosphere upon reentry from space.

In a March 13, 1978 issue of News of the North, for example, Dr. Henri Rothschild, a representative from the federal Department of the Environment and expert in bionucleonics (i.e. nuclear medicine) stated that only “a fraction” of radioactivity that is typically released in nuclear weapons testing was found in the Great Slave Lake Area. He further noted that very few byproducts were found, so it meant most of the satellite and fuel on board had in fact burned up in the atmosphere.

Marlowe, however, says he isn’t convinced all debris was uncovered based on what he has seen among community members who rely on plants and animals directly from the immediate environment for food and drink.

“We mostly still live a healthy lifestyle, we use traditional, country food and have limited access to processed food, junk food,” he said. “If (the cancer incidents) are related to Cosmos 954 the community has to be compensated and there has to be research done to find out the effects of radiation.”

Richard Edjericon, MLA for Tu Nedhé-Wiilideh called for a public inquiry on March 29 in the Legislative Assembly, noting that the Dene depend on clean land and water and should have a full understanding of the fallout of the crash and be compensated for any lasting effects.

“This is a real concern about lasting health effects from the crash which may be the reasons for increased rates of cancer or other illness,” he told the assembly.