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article imageReview: John P. Smol — Oil sands and lake ecosystems study — Part 1 Special

By Grace C. Visconti     Apr 22, 2013 in Environment
Kingston - This is a 2 Part interview with Professor John Smol, (Department of Biology, Queen’s University). Part 1 has excerpts from “Legacy of a half century of Athabasca oil sands development recorded by lake ecosystems.” Questions and results are discussed
Legacy of half century of Athabasca oil sands development recorded by lake ecosystems
Joshua Kurek a, Jane L. Kirk b, Derek C. G. Muir b, Xiaowa Wang b, Marlene S. Evans c, and John P. Smol a,1
a Paleoecological Environmental Assessment and Research Laboratory, Department of Biology, Queen’s University, Kingston, ON, Canada K7L 3N6; b Aquatic Contaminants Research Division, Environment Canada, Burlington, ON, Canada L7R 4A6; and c Aquatic Contaminants Research Division, Environment Canada, Saskatoon, SK, Canada, S7N 3H5
Edited by John P. Giesy, University of Saskatchewan, Saskatoon, SK, Canada, and accepted by the Editorial Board November 19, 2012 (received for review October 11, 2012)
Background Information from the study:
Bituminous oil sands in northern Alberta and Saskatchewan comprise 97%of Canada’s proven oil reserves. They represent the world’s third largest reserves (1) and are a significant North American economic driver, with a staggering growth trajectory. In 1980, oil production was 100,000 barrels per day. Production today is ∼1.5 million barrels per day and is projected to increase by 150% (to 3.7 million barrels per day) between 2010 and 2025. (2)
PAHs are a diverse group of organic compounds with multiple aromatic rings and are produced by the incomplete combustion of fossil fuels and biomass. They are relatively insoluble in water and bind to organic particles in the water column, persist in lake sediments, occur in complex mixtures, and have the potential to impact aquatic organisms at several trophic levels, particularly in the presence of other stressors (18–21). With similar properties to PAHs, the sulfur-containing dibenzothiophenes (DBTs) are a related class of aromatic compounds. C1-C4– alkylated PAHs and DBTs are both recognized as prominent components of Athabasca oil sands bitumen (6, 22).
Study Quote: “We show that polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) within lake sediments, particularly C1 C4–alkylated PAHs, increased significantly after development of the bitumen resource began, followed by significant increases in dibenzothiophenes. Total PAH fluxes in the modern sediments of our six study lakes, including one site ∼90 km northwest of the major development area, are now ∼2.5–23 times greater than ∼1960 levels.”
GCV: Knowing how toxic these chemicals are, would they have a severe effect on aquatic life?
JPS: Several PAHs are known carcinogens and rank in the top 10 hazardous substances on the US Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry. PAHs are widespread and at high concentrations are toxic to aquatic organisms. The dose, duration, and exposure pathway to toxic substances, such as PAHs, are all important factors to consider. Additionally, the age, sex, condition, and physiology and behaviour of organisms also are important factors. Canadian interim sediment quality guidelines (CISQGs) and probable effects levels (PELs) for 13 specific PAHs have been estimated (Canadian Council of Ministers of the Environment 1999). These guidelines inform on whether biological effects are likely to occur as a result of exposure to PAHs in sediments. However, the CCME guidelines do not account for petrogenic PAHs (i.e. those associated with hydrocarbon-based combustion processes), which are as much as 10 times more toxic than PAHs associated with other combustion processes (e.g. forest fires) (Hodson 2013).
Study Quote: Canadian interim sediment quality guidelines for PAHs have been exceeded since the mid-1980s at the most impacted site. A paleoecological assessment of Daphnia shows that this sentinel zooplankter has not yet been negatively impacted by decades of high atmospheric PAH deposition. Rather, coincident with increases in PAHs, climate-induced shifts in aquatic primary production related to warmer and drier conditions are the primary environmental drivers producing marked daphniid shifts after∼1960 to 1970. Note: Daphnia is the focal zooplankton indicator, is an established model organism used worldwide in toxicology assessments and represents a promising indicator for understanding multiple environmental stressors, including contaminants (24).
GCV: Is this breach in interim sediment guidelines for PAHs a result of not having an adequate and comprehensive monitoring system for the oil sands development at the onset?
JPS: Comprehensive monitoring of ecosystems is often initiated only after an environmental problem is obvious or well recognized by a majority of stakeholders. Therefore, indirect approaches, similar to those used in the Kurek et al. (2013) study, can be extremely valuable. Clearly, some aspects of previous environmental monitoring efforts in the oil sands region were unable to effectively characterize background conditions prior to when commercial development began decades ago (discussed for example in the Dowdeswell et al. 2010 report commissioned by Environment Canada). We are hopeful that the new, "world class" federal-provincial environmental monitoring plan for the Alberta oil sands announced in 2012 lives up to its billing.
Study Quote: Because of the striking increase in PAHs, elevated primary production, and zooplankton changes, these oil sands lake ecosystems have entered new ecological states completely distinct from those of previous centuries.
GCV: Can you explain how these changes will affect the ecosystems?
JPS: We exist in a world of multiple environmental stressors. Broadly, this means that ecosystems face several major stressors at the same time. In the oil sands region, these stressors may include habitat destruction, contaminant deposition, climate change, etc…The cumulative impacts of these stressors are difficult to predict. Yet, the Kurek et al. (2013) study highlighted how ecosystems in the region, such as lakes, have responded to long-term environmental change. These lakes are now exposed to a variety of stressors leading to major differences in their physical, chemical, and biological properties compared to decades ago.
Study Quote: Some of the controversy results from a lack of systematic environmental monitoring of industrial activities before the establishment of the industry-funded Regional Aquatics Monitoring Program (RAMP) in 1997. Furthermore, weaknesses highlighted by scientific reviews of RAMP, in its inability to recognize effects on freshwaters (10–12), leads to additional criticism by some stakeholders.
GCV: What proof is there that scientific reviews of RAMP showed “its inability to recognize effects on freshwaters?”
JPS: Limitations of RAMP have been pointed out clearly by several comprehensive reviews of its monitoring efforts, including for example those by Fisheries and Ocean Canada (Ayles et al. 2004), Environment Canada (Dowdeswell et al. 2010), and The Royal Society of Canada (Gosseilin et al. 2004), and several others. In addition, peer-reviewed studies such as those by researchers based primarily at the University of Alberta (Kelly et al. 2009, 2010) have identified shortcomings of RAMP and criticized RAMP’s ability to measure environmental impacts of the oil sands industry with confidence.
Study Quote: Almost two decades of environmental monitoring within the oil sands region has failed to establish background concentrations of highly toxic contaminants…The lack of consensus among the few temporal-focused PAH studies to date, and the shortcomings of oil sands monitoring programs to adequately recognize the deposition patterns of atmospheric contaminants (6, 7), leave justifiable cause for concern as to the ecological implications of oil sands development.
GCV: What is the solution then if production is well underway and increasing in the future?
JPS: The first step is to recognize that a problem exists and then to determine its full extent. A major part of this is to understand long-term environmental conditions, such as Kurek et al. (2013) accomplishes. This is done by asking the right questions using appropriate scientific techniques. Stakeholders must then determine the next course of action, but in my opinion, science-based evidence is critical to guiding policy on future oil sands development.
Study Quote: As noted repeatedly in previous assessments of the impacts of the Alberta oil sands operations, insufficient monitoring data and a poor understanding of predevelopment conditions have hampered attempts to determine the scope of pollution from oil sands development (11).
GCV: What do you attribute the “poor understanding of predevelopment conditions” to, ignorance, poor planning or a lack of concern for the environmental integrity of the region or all of the above?
JPS: This problem is not peculiar to the Athabasca oil sands. Often we lack comprehensive monitoring and only start dealing with problems after-the-fact. Environmental monitoring is often completed in a haphazard fashion. It is simply too easy for individuals, government, and corporations to ignore our shared environmental responsibility. Current environmental costs must be accounted for by our economy. This has got to change or we will simply saddle future generations with a crushing environmental debt.
Study Quote: Daphnia, our focal zooplankton indicator, is an established model organism used worldwide in toxicology assessments and represents a promising indicator for understanding multiple environmental stressors, including contaminants (24).
GCV: How important was the Daphnia focal zooplankton indicator and how accurate is the model organism in toxicology assessments?
JPS: Daphnia are key invertebrates in many aquatic ecosystems and form an important link between primary producers (algae) and secondary consumers (waterfowl, small fish, large invertebrates). They are a bellwether of ecosystem conditions and their physiology, ecology, and genetics are very well understood compared to other aquatic invertebrates. Daphniids are used frequently around the world to assess the toxicity of chemicals and provide important context to biomedical research. In those respects, they are critical to our understanding of how multiple stressors affect organisms at an intermediate trophic level.
Study Quote: Collectively, our temporal insights, coupled with findings from spatial contaminant surveys (6, 7), leave little doubt of the unprecedented increases of PAHs and the overarching influences of recent climatic changes on northeastern Alberta’s lake ecosystems.
GCV: Regarding this quote, are you implying that the climate change in the region is solely due to oil sands production or could other influences be responsible for the climate change in the region like changes in the sun affecting the earth for example?
JPS: No, regional climate change cannot be solely attributed to oil sands production, although the oil and gas industry in particular represents an important portion of Canada’s greenhouse gas emissions. The Kurek et al. (2013) study recognized that while PAHs have increased substantially, the impacts of climate change are also recognizable within the lake sediment records examined to date. Again, multiple environmental stressors are affecting these remote ecosystems. This is another example of a multiple stressor. For example, with warming we can get enhanced evaporation, which decreases water levels and can further concentrate pollutants.
Study Quote: Collectively, the C3-DBT/C3-PHE and C2-DBT/C2-CRY ratios, along with other indicators of combustion sources, suggest a shift to petrogenic and unweathered alkylated PAH sources in the modern sediments of our five lakes proximate to the major oil sands development area.
GCV: Is this conclusive evidence that indeed the oil sands development is causing great damage to the ecosystems in the Athabasca region?
JPS: This provides strong, science-based evidence that the PAHs observed in these sediment records are clearly linked to industrial activities, particularly the processing and upgrading of bitumen.
Study Quote: Focused environmental monitoring of oil sands aquatic ecosystems did not exist before the establishment of RAMP in 1997 through industry funding. Furthermore, before 2000, Canada’s mandatory National Pollutant Release Inventory (NPRI) did not require industrial facilities to report PAH emissions. Therefore, indirect monitoring, provided by our paleolimnological approach, is the only method available for establishing background conditions of PAHs before extensive development of the oil sands began. Together, the historic timings of PAH increases measured from our lake sediments (Fig. 1), including the temporal shifts in characteristic PAH ratios suggesting more petrogenic sources (Fig. S3), and the results of a spatial PAH deposition survey (6) provide compelling science-based evidence that local industrial activities are important contributors of PAHs to aquatic ecosystems in the Athabasca oil sands region. Additionally, lakes to the east of the Athabasca River record particularly striking contaminant increases, consistent with the prevailing winds blowing across local upgrading facilities and surface-mining areas. Atmospheric depositions of PAHs from upgrader emissions and/or unweathered bitumen in the form of dust particles from surface-mining areas are now likely a major source of PAHs entering regional aquatic ecosystems. Industry’s role as a decades-long contributor of PAHs to oil sands lake ecosystems is now clearly evident.
GCV: Considering that monitoring has not been adequately done, would you agree that governments and industry have failed the people of this region, in particular, First Nations residents who rely on healthy ecosystems for their way of life? In your opinion, how can the damage be mitigated in the future as oil sands production increases?
JPS: My students call me an optimist and to some degree I self-identify as one. Therefore, instead of failure, I tend to see opportunity or at least like to consider some positive aspect of most situations. While there are real challenges that exist for First Nations in the oil sands region and across Canada, the issue is complex. Nonetheless, First Nations are an important stakeholder in the oil sands region and their unique experience, knowledge, and perspective needs to be considered.
Study Quote: Canadian interim sediment quality guidelines (CISQGs), which are available for 13 specific PAHs (30), are currently exceeded for seven compounds [i.e., phenanthrene, pyrene, benz(a)anthracene, chrysene, benzo(a)pyrene, dibenz(a,h)anthracene, 2-methylnaphthalene] at NE20, the site receiving the highest deposition of PAHs through time. Sediment concentrations of five PAHs at NE20, including 2-methylnaphthalene, benz(a)anthracene, chrysene, benzo(a)pyrene, and dibenz(a,h)anthracene, have exceeded CISQGs for about two decades.
GCV: Knowing that the guidelines have been exceeded for seven compounds (PAHs), and with sediment concentrations of five PAHs being exceeded for two decades in one lake NE20, can you project how this will affect the aquatic ecosystems in the Athabasca region without strict monitoring in the future? 
JPS: Monitoring now seems to be increasing with the new program for the region – at least I am giving it the benefit of the doubt. If your question would be what I think will happen if no safeguards are put into place in the future, then I would answer that industry itself projects increases in operations of around 150% in 15 years, and so if nothing else happens these pollutants will just increase.
Study Quote: Environmental change driving both shifts in the physical and chemical conditions of aquatic ecosystems, coupled with modern sedimentary PAH concentrations several-fold greater than “natural” background levels, warrants much further research consideration. Nevertheless, considering predictions of future climate warming and accelerating oil sands development, there exists great potential for Athabasca oil sands ecosystems to experience marked changes in their function and ecological organization.
GCV: Considering the initial poor planning and the lack of environmental safeguards in place for the long-term with respect to oil sands development, would you agree that Northern Alberta will be unrecognizable given that the increase of future oil sands production will have an expansive detrimental effect on the land and water?
JPS: Unrecognizable is a very strong word. But, if you compare a remote boreal forest landscape to an active surface mining operation, there is little similarity. This is also true for other intense mining operations across the country. Currently, 10 mines covering ~170,000 ha have government approval to operate (Rooney et al. 2012). The surface-mining “footprint” has increased considerably, from 40 ha in 1974 to 71,000 ha in 2010 (Evans and Talbot 2012). Converting to American football fields = from 90 football fields in 1974 to 160,000 football fields in 2010 (a ~1700 fold increase). In addition, the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers (CAPP, 2011) forecasts that in 15 years, production will be ~3.7 million barrels per day- a 150% (or 2.5 fold) increase from today’s levels.
Kurek et al. (2013) Legacy of a half century of Athabasca oil sands development recorded by lake ecosystems. Proc Natl Acad Sci USA 110 (5) 1761-1766; published ahead of print January 7, 2013, doi:10.1073/pnas.1217675110.
Tipping Point: Age of the Oil Sands
PEARL Paleoecological Environmental Assessment and Research Laboratory
Kurek et al. (2013) Legacy of a half century of Athabasca oil sands development recorded by lake ecosystems. Proc Natl Acad Sci USA 110 (5) 1761-1766; published ahead of print January 7, 2013, doi:10.1073/pnas.1217675110.
Commentary - Biological Sciences - Environmental Sciences, History of environmental contamination by oil sands extraction, Peter V. Hodson, Proc Natl Acad Sci USA 110 (5) 1569-1570; published ahead of print January 11, 2013, doi:10.1073/pnas.1221660110.
Kelly EN, et al. (2010) Oil sands development contributes elements toxic at low concentrations to the Athabasca River and its tributaries. Proc Natl Acad Sci USA 107(37):16178–16183.
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