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article imageStudy finds Alberta's Athabasca River polluted by oil sands

By Stephanie Dearing     Aug 31, 2010 in Environment
Edmonton - A study conducted by University of Alberta biologists and ecologists released Monday concluded that 13 toxic pollutants found in Alberta's Athabasca River came from the oil sands.
The long-brewing disagreement between companies developing Alberta's oil sands and environmentalists just got another jolt with the release of a study showing 13 toxic pollutants are released into the Athabasca River by oil sand processors. Published Monday in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences journal (PNAS), "Oil sands development contributes elements toxic at low concentrations to the Athabasca River and its tributaries" has issued a renewed call for strict monitoring of oil sand processors in Alberta.
The University of Alberta authors said "We show that the oil sands industry releases the 13 elements considered priority pollutants (PPE) under the US Environmental Protection Agency’s Clean Water Act, via air and water, to the Athabasca River and its watershed. In the 2008 snowpack, all PPE except selenium were greater near oil sands developments than at more remote sites. Bitumen upgraders and local oil sands development were sources of airborne emissions. Concentrations of mercury, nickel, and thallium in winter and all 13 PPE in summer were greater in tributaries with watersheds more disturbed by development than in less disturbed watersheds. In the Athabasca River during summer, concentrations of all PPE were greater near developed areas than upstream of development. At sites downstream of development and within the Athabasca Delta, concentrations of all PPE except beryllium and selenium remained greater than upstream of development. Concentrations of some PPE at one location in Lake Athabasca near Fort Chipewyan were also greater than concentration in the Athabasca River upstream of development. Canada’s or Alberta’s guidelines for the protection of aquatic life were exceeded for seven PPE—cadmium, copper, lead, mercury, nickel, silver, and zinc—in melted snow and/or water collected near or downstream of development."
The study found mercury and lead are in the river in higher than permitted levels. This finding should automatically prompt the federal Department of Fisheries and Oceans to follow-up, as per their mandate. That agency has not yet responded to the report.
The study concludes with an emphatic statement: "Contrary to claims made by industry and government in the popular press, the oil sands industry substantially increases loadings of toxic PPE to the AR and its tributaries via air and water pathways."
Indeed, it was only a few years ago when the federal Ministry of the Environment said no to further investigations of possible links between toxins released from oil sands processors and downstream cancer in Fort Chipewyan. In response to a petition submitted by The Keepers of the Athabasca Alliance in 2008, the Ministry said its own studies, along with numerous other monitoring reports, had not found any evidence of heavy metals, let alone toxins released by oil sands processors. The government went on to say "... Canada is not aware of any contamination levels or standards that would allow for any deposit by a person of a deleterious substance into the Athabasca River (from Fort McMurray downstream), the Peace-Athabasca Delta and Lake Athabasca.
... No evidence of any deposit by a person of a deleterious substance has been found."
The three metals the government said it found in one river were attributed to "sediment loading in the river and cannot be traced to deposition from tar sands tailings ponds."
Reached by the Calgary Herald, a Suncor representative said the heavy metals found in the Athabasca "... are all naturally occurring substances in the oilsands. . . . we're not adding anything to the process." The Calgary Herald goes on to blame coal-fired electricity generation in Alberta as being the source of the mercury found in Alberta waterways, including the Athabasca.
Reporting on a press conference given by the study authors Monday, the Edmonton Journal cited ecologist Dr. David Schindler as saying "There's no way industry can be belching out hundreds of kilograms of toxins every year and this not be detectable in the environment unless the monitoring program is totally incompetent."
... All of this is in clear violation of the Fisheries Act. The Fisheries Act is not based on amounts released or concentrations in the river; it just says flatly that there will be no deposition of any deleterious substance to a river or near enough to a river to get into it. Period. ... You have to ask where is Environment Canada on all of this?
... You have to wonder why do we have money for propaganda and not for proper science? Government has been putting money into their propaganda campaign to tell people everything is OK. I just think that's not the way democracy should work. If people can see what's really going on and they still choose to develop in the oilsands that's democracy. But making people think that everything's OK when it really isn't and therefore getting them to agree to this is not the way the government of this country or this province was set up to work."
The Athabasca River originates from a glacier in Jasper National Park, located in the Rocky Mountains. It is the longest river in Alberta, and runs past the oil sands. Organizations like the Pembina Institute have long been asking for strict rules for oil sands developers and processors to protect the river.
Alberta is very protective of its oil sands, which have become a mainstay of the economy. Albertans are paid an annual royalty, a portion of the wealth generated by the oil sands developments, as well as from the development of natural gas resources.
Cynics say the data demonstrating the link between the oil sands and pollution of the Athabasca River will not result in any new actions taken by any government body.
More about Athabasca river, Oil sands, Alberta tar sands, Tar sands, Heavy metals
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