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article imageAlberta tar sands mining tied to increased downstream carcinogens

By Lynn Herrmann     May 21, 2011 in Environment
Edmonton - New research shows increased levels of some carcinogenic chemicals associated with oil sands mining along Canada’s Athabasca River and discredits industry and government long-held claims of natural sources being responsible.
Polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) concentrations found downstream of oil sands developments increased 41 percent between 1999-2009, according a study recently published in the journal Environmental Science and Technology.
PAHs are shown to cause cancer and other health issues in laboratory test animals.
Heavily dependent on oil sands exports, Canada’s government allowed around 950,000 barrels of oil sands crude per day to be shipped to the US in 2009, around 80 percent of the 1.2 million barrels which were extracted daily from Alberta. Projections show Alberta’s tar sands production to more than double within five years.
Treeline Ecological Research’s principal investigator Kevin Timoney, lead author of the study, said the increase of PAHs parallels oil sands production along the lower Athabasca, doubling between 1998 and 2009, Solve Climate News (SCN)reports
The Atabasca River, Alberta’s largest free-flowing river, travels northeast for 956 miles, passing through much of the province’s tar sands mining region, before draining into Lake Athabasca.
PAHs are naturally occurring in bitumen, a viscous, tar-like substance extracted from Alberta’s sand and clay, but tar sand mining operations increase exposure of these hydrocarbons to water and air, and concentrations of PAHs downstream of the mining operations are now at levels harmful to aquatic life, according to SCN.
The Canadian government’s website, Alberta Environment, claims the oil sands of the Athabasca region are naturally occurring as the river courses through and erodes the sand and notes
data from the Regional Aquatics Monitoring Program indicates no increase in concentrations of contaminants as oil sands development has progressed.
The government also claims other rivers without oil sands mining operations have higher concentrations of PAHs, stating
PAH levels found in samples on other rivers in the area with absolutely no industrial oil sands activity have been found to be higher than samples taken downstream from oil sands developments.
Timoney, however, said government “misinformation” led to his team’s research which found downstream PAH levels were greater than levels found at control sites upstream of tar sands mining.
Much research still needs to be done on the effects of PAHs to the human health system, but exposure comes through air, skin contact, or through eating PAH-contaminated food. People dependent on fish and wildlife from the Athabasca River Delta are likely at a higher risk than those eating store-bought food, Timoney told SCN.
A 2009 Alberta Cancer Board study found cancer rates in Fort Chipewyan residents 30 percent higher than expected. The community lies 155 miles downstream from mining operations, and it residents are from the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nations and Mikisew Cree.
The Regional Aquatics Monitoring Program (RAMP), the group the Canadian government is using for data on tar sands operations, is an industry-funded group created in 1997 to monitor impacts of oil sands mining in the Athabasca River Basin. Its current steering committee is comprised of 16 mining and industry companies, eight government organizations, two First Nation communities, the regional municipality of Wood Buffalo and one health center, SCN notes.
As RAMP’s budget has grown over the years, so has the scope of criticism over its ability to provide accurate data. The Royal Society of Canada has called on it to provide more scientific accuracy and increase groundwater monitoring.
Independent scientific studies of the group in 2004 and 2010 concluded RAMP needed to improve its work, both in scope and quality.
William Donahue with Alberta-based Water Matters said the latest study is important because it draws further attention to the tar sands industry, the contamination associated with it and ”highlights the fact that the provincial government and the body in charge of doing monitoring and assessing impacts aren't doing their jobs properly,” SCN reports.
More about Athabasca, tar sands mining, Alberta, mining operation, Carcinogen
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