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article imageOp-Ed: John P. Smol — Environmental oil sands commentary — Part 2 Special

1 more article on this subject:
Calgary - “Environmental oil sands commentary - Part 2” is a continuation of questions asked of John P. Smol based on the commentary by Peter V. Hodson called “History of environmental contamination by oil extraction” about the Kurek et al (2013) oil sands.
PART 1 PART 2
Download Peter V. Hodson’s commentary and the other studies here:
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.
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.
  
INTERVIEW WITH JOHN P. SMOL
GCV: In the report History of environmental contamination by oil extraction by Peter V. Hodson, he clarifies the debate concerning the extraction and processing of Canada’s massive oil sands in the Athabasca region of Northern Alberta. He claims the “debate has been characterized by accusations, denial, emotional and few reliable or appropriate data to clarify the issue.” Then he goes on to mention your oil sands study. How does your study “clarify the issue” of oil sands contamination once and for all and do you support his statement in quotes?
JPS: The Kurek et al. (2013) study adds the ever-important time dimension to the oil sands pollution story and refutes the idea that contaminants from sites such as ours are from natural sources. Without this indirect approach used by Kurek et al., the background conditions would remain unknown. So, yes, we did clarify the issue - PAHs have increased significantly as industry has developed the bitumen resource.
  
GCV: What was the goal of your study and the parameters that you created before starting the study?
JPS: The goals of our paleolimnological-based study were to address the following questions: 1) Have sedimentary PAHs associated with the oil sands increased since commercial development began in 1967 and 2) How have zooplankton assemblages responded to long-term environmental change? The mechanism of pollution is through atmospheric deposition of contaminants. We chose to avoid lakes that were/are flood prone (Hall et al. 2012). Instead, we examined sediment records from lake systems that reflect the atmospheric deposition of PAHs from nearby bitumen upgraders. In addition, the catchments of all of our study lakes are not currently disturbed by nearby mining operations. We were able to clearly link the timing of increased PAHs (late 1960s-early 1970s) and the signature (composition) of PAHs (from wood to hydrocarbon-based sources) with the commercial development of the oil sands post 1967.
  
GCV: In the History of environmental contamination by oil extraction by Peter V. Hodson, it states regarding the Kelly et al. 2009, 2010 study that the “synoptic survey was not a comprehensive description of the area affected or duration of contamination. It did not account for mass transport of contaminants in river particulates, biotic transfer in migrating fish species, total annual emissions, or seasonal distributions of airborne contaminants by prevailing winds. Interpretation was also hampered by the absence of true baselines in an already contaminated landscape.” Can you explain this comment?
JPS: In many respects, his comments suggest we provided an overly optimistic view. Kelly et al. (2009) is a spatial survey of PAHs within snowpack deposited in the winter of 2008. They demonstrated that Alberta oil sands development released PAHs into the environment at high levels within ~50 km of the main development area (site AR6). Kelly et al. estimated that over 4 months, ~400 kg of PAHs (equivalent to 600 T of bitumen) were deposited. While the very important spatial data presented by Kelly et al. recognized the modern, spatial signature of PAH deposition across a 4-month winter period, they could only speculate how long this pattern has persisted in time (i.e. commercial development began in 1967). Our study provides the “temporal perspective” necessary to place contemporary PAH loadings in their historical context. Our study reconstructs past contaminant levels, before regular monitoring was initiated, and show that for our study lakes, PAH levels increased.
  
GCV: As stated in the History of environmental contamination by oil extraction commentary regarding one of the controversial issues of oil sands development is the following: “A major point of contention has been the extent to which oil sands contaminants (PAHs, metals, airborne particulates; oxides of nitrogen and sulfur) are distributed downwind and downriver of mining and processing,” thus leading to deformity of fish and other health issues in the area. Have the results of your study confirmed that there is indeed contamination and therefore it is worth doing a follow-up study?
JPS: We show that PAHs have increased substantially since development began in 1967. This trend is not natural and the pattern we highlight differs from other remote lakes in north-central North America, where PAHs have mostly decreased since the mid-1900s. Our findings represent an important step forward in recognizing the impacts of oil sands development. And yes, further research at Queen’s University on oil sands pollution impacts is currently ongoing.
  
GCV: Also, in the same Peter V. Hodson commentary, it states why your study has been more thorough than most. “By chemical and biological analyses of dated sediment cores, they link PAH contamination to the history of air emissions from oil sands industries, track the growth of oil sands activities since the 1960s, discriminate industrial from ‘natural’ sources of PAHs, establish a predevelopment baseline of PAH fluxes to sediments, expand the area known to be affected by emissions, and raise new questions about potential impacts on freshwater ecosystems.” Knowing the results, how will increased oil sands development affect freshwater ecosystems to the detriment of aquatic life?
JPS: From our data, sedimentary PAH concentrations at only one study site NE20 exceeded Canadian interim sediment quality guidelines (CISQGs) for the protection of aquatic life. At NE20, 7 of 13 PAHs now exceed CISQGs. Sediment concentrations of 5 PAHs have exceeded CISQGs for ~2 decades. PELs were not exceeded at NE20. The location of NE20, northeast of the upgraders and south of a major surface-mining area likely have resulted in the high deposition of PAHs at this study site- about 23x more ΣPAHs today than predevelopment. Given that oil production from the Alberta oil sands is forecasted to increase by ~150% over the next 15 years (CAPP 2011) and the mining footprint will also expand, we predict that sedimentary concentrations of PAHs will only increase. Therefore, the threat for adverse biological effects to occur is real.
  
GCV: How did you prove scientifically the contamination in the pre-1967 sediment cores compared to the post-1967 sediment cores differed? What were the results given the contrast of oil sands chemical imprints?
JPS: We measured the concentrations of 46 specific PAHs within dated sediment intervals from our six study sites. We were able to pinpoint the timing of PAH increase and also the composition shift to more hydrocarbon sources post commercial development.
  
GCV: Who funded your study Legacy of half century of Athabasca oil sands development recorded by lake ecosystems? Why was this study funded and done now and not before omnibus Bills C38 and C45 passed?
JPS: Environment Canada and Natural Science and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC) funded this study. The Environment Canada funding was not part of the new federal-provincial environmental monitoring plan for the Alberta oil sands announced in 2012. The timing of our study has nothing to do with omnibus Bills C38 and C45.
  
GCV: After doing this study and knowing what exactly is at stake, do you believe it is possible to minimize damage done to the environment in the Athabasca region as oil sands production increases?
JPS: Industry is very resourceful and can likely find cost-effective solutions to mitigating their environmental impacts in the oil sands region. Leadership is the key here; either Alberta or the federal government must provide some direction.
  
GCV: In one lake NE20, the concentrations of seven PAHs exceeded Canadian interim sediment quality guidelines. Since there has been a 23-fold increase in sediment PAH concentrations over the past 50 years and there is a projection of 150% increase in oil sands production over the next 15 years, what would you surmise the quality of soil and water in Northern Alberta will be like then?
JPS: It’s obvious that if nothing else changes, then PAHs will only increase in the region as industry develops the bitumen resource at a greater rate than current production levels- even industry would freely admit this. That said, PAH concentrations in these remote lake systems may only approach levels typically observed in urban areas. But the trends are clear -- PAHs have increased and will continue to do so.
  
GCV: Personally, what did you learn from doing this study? Would you ever consider residing in the area knowing the results of this very comprehensive study? Can you empathize with people that live in the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation Treaty 8 region where the oil sands production is taking place?
JPS: A surprising finding of our study is that remote Namur Lake, ~90 km northwest of the major bitumen upgraders, records a generally similar, albeit weaker PAH signal (in time and composition) to our five study sites closer to the major development area. This demonstrates that atmospheric emissions of PAHs from bitumen upgraders are likely travelling further (almost double the distance) than previously recognized. However, it should be noted that, the data from Namur Lake represent only one distant site from the major upgraders. But, it is likely that as the “footprint” of oil sands development expands and oil production from today’s levels increases, high deposition of PAHs will most certainly be detected at greater distances.
Kingston, Ontario, is my home, but plenty of people I know (e.g. colleagues and former students) enjoy living in northern Alberta. There are several legitimate concerns that First Nations face with respect to oil sands development. These are not easy to solve, but the First Nations concerns need to be adequately addressed. The first step is sound science and communicating it effectively.
  
GCV: From your perspective as a scientist, what are the necessary steps to be taken next considering the data results? If asked, would you collaborate to do more studies financially backed by the government and industry to assist in the process of environmental recovery thereby taking part in innovative-based solutions?
JPS: A couple of key questions remain. First, what is the relative importance of contaminant sources to the deposition signal (e.g. upgraders versus dust from surface mines)? Which factors determine the spatial pattern of contaminant deposition (e.g. wind, distance from source)? What are the impacts on ecosystem health? How will future expansion influence contaminant emissions and deposition patterns? Therefore, lots to be done! Paleolimnology provides an important perspective on long-term environmental change, especially in the absence of adequate direct monitoring data. As practitioners of this science, we are well-positioned to contribute significantly toward a comprehensive monitoring program in the oil sands region. My lab looks forward to further research on the impacts of oil sands development to aquatic ecosystems.
PART 1 PART 2
  
REFERENCES
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.
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.
  
LINKS
NATURE OF THINGS
Tipping Point: Age of the Oil Sands
PEARL MEDIA RELEASE PAGE ABOUT STUDIES AND ADDITIONAL LINKS
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.
Alberta Lakes show chemical effects of oilsands, study finds
Pollutants from 50 years of oilsands production found in lake 90 km from facilities
ADDITIONAL OIL SANDS PUBLICATIONS AND LINKS
Oil sands development contributes elements toxic at low concentrations to the Athabasca River and its tributaries
Oil Sands Research and Information Network
SCHOOL OF ENVIRONMENTAL STUDIES, QUEEN’S UNIVERSITY
Toxic contaminants released by Tar Sands Industries
NATURE
Tar sands mining linked to stream pollution
CBC
German scientists quit oil sands research program
DIGITAL JOURNAL LINKS
WCEL Senior Lawyer explains Bill C-45, First Nations Rights, FIPA
Chief Adam: Environmental law changes must be challenged (Part 1)
Chief Adam: Water is at risk with Bill C-45 and FIPA (Part 2)
Grassroots movement Idle No More fueled by Bill C-45 – Tanya Kappo
Canada: Idle No More protests spark meeting with PM Harper
This opinion article was written by an independent writer. The opinions and views expressed herein are those of the author and are not necessarily intended to reflect those of DigitalJournal.com
article:348555:12::0
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