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article imageOp-Ed: University of Toronto oil sands study excerpts, discussion Special

By Grace C. Visconti     Feb 23, 2014 in Environment
Scarborough - This is Part 2 of an Interview with Abha Parajulee about the study done with University of Toronto PhD supervisor Frank Wania that sheds light on emissions where oil sands production is occurring.
Abha Parajulee is a PhD candidate in the Environmental Sciences program at the University of Toronto Scarborough. Frank Wania is a professor in the Department of Physical & Environmental Sciences at the University of Toronto Scarborough. This study originated as a term project when Abha was taking a modeling course taught by Dr. Wania. Since the preliminary results of the project were quite interesting, indicating that officially reported emissions were too low, the project continued after the course ended to evaluate the findings in more detail.
Study Excerpt - Significance: “Our study shows that emissions of polycyclic aromatic hydro-carbons estimated in environmental impact assessments conducted to approve developments in the Athabasca oil sands region (AOSR) are likely too low. This finding implies that environmental concentrations in exposure-relevant media, such as air, water, and food, estimated using those emissions may also be too low. The potential therefore exists that estimation of future risk to humans and wildlife because of surface mining activity in the Athabasca oil sands region has been underestimated.”
GCV: How could years of supposed monitoring cause this to happen? Since the situation is more serious now, is it too late to enforce solutions to make a difference considering sizable expansion is immediately forthcoming?
AP: The “years of monitoring” have been deemed inadequate by a few review panels in recent years. As an optimist, I would say it is not too late to implement solutions to mitigate the adverse effects of industrial development. However, I would also say that before coming up with solutions, we need to have a good, i.e. accurate, idea of what these impacts are in the first place.
Study Excerpt: In addition, the quantities of PAHs reported by oil sands developers in the Athabasca oil sands region (AOSR) to the Canadian government’s National Pollutant Release Inventory (NPRI) (8) as disposal to tailings ponds are up to five orders-of-magnitude larger than quantities reported as direct atmospheric emissions, highlighting the possibility of volatilization of PAHs from these ponds and their subsequent deposition to soils and waters.
GCV: Explain how this volatile situation is with respect to tailings ponds disposals being “up to five orders-of-magnitude larger than quantities reported as direct atmospheric emissions?”
AP: To provide some background: the NPRI states that quantities of chemicals reported as “disposal” are reported as “ ‘disposals’ and not ‘releases’ as they are contained within managed disposal sites and are not being released directly into the environment”. Thus, knowing that some PAHs can be quite volatile (i.e. high tendency to escape into the air), we suspected the NPRI’s characterization of disposals was not entirely realistic or reasonable when seeing those high numbers that were reported as disposal. And indeed, we found that the indirect emissions from tailings ponds could be a more significant contributor of some PAHs to the AOSR when compared to “direct” emissions. The blanket assumption that all chemicals are well confined within tailings areas needs to be reevaluated.
Study Excerpt #1: “Furthermore, indirect emissions of PAHs from secondary sources, such as tailings ponds to the atmosphere, may be a more significant contributor of oil sands PAHs to the AOSR atmosphere relative to direct emissions to air.”
Study Excerpt #2: “The relatively low proportion of tailings pond BaP that volatilizes from the tailings areas does not render BaP emissions to tailings ponds insignificant, as the mass balance suggests that most of the remaining BaP in the region is in the tailings pond sediment, which may have serious implications for ongoing efforts to reclaim tailings areas.”
GCV: In the two study excerpts above regarding the impact of tailings ponds, it is inferred that not only do tailings ponds contribute more of some hazardous air pollutants to the AOSR than previously thought, but also that there may be “serious implications” from a toxicological perspective for the reclamation of this land. Would the area be less toxic if the method of oil extraction involved another proprietary method or is it too late to alter the path of the environmental degradation already occurring?
Though a large fraction of oil sands operations to date are open-pit mines, most of the oil sands deposits in Alberta are actually too deep to be extracted by open pit mining, and must be extracted using in-situ techniques. These techniques use heat and pressure to soften the viscous bitumen deposits deep underground such that they can then be piped up to the surface. I am no expert on in-situ operations and their impacts, but it seems they also present a set of pros and cons. Perhaps they might result in less dust production relative to open pit mines per unit area, but they will also result in waste materials left over from bitumen processing that will need to be disposed of somehow. A major concern associated with in-situ oil sands operations is widespread land fragmentation that warrants just as much concern as toxicity of air and water.
Study Excerpt: A thorough understanding of contaminant cycling in the AOSR is currently absent from the tapestry of environmental studies that include several investigations into land reclamation and process water toxicity and treatment.
GCV: Can you explain further?
AP: Most of the studies concerning environmental impacts in the oil sands region have been focused on characterization of the present state of the environment, e.g. toxicity of oil sands process water to different fish species, concentrations of certain chemicals in different media. The present state of the environment is only a small piece of the larger picture that illustrates oil sands impacts from source to receptor. Fortunately, an increasing number of studies in recent years, including ours, have turned their attention to this bigger picture. It is only with this more complete understanding of impacts, from source to receptor, that effective management strategies can be developed.
Study Excerpt: A recent long-term monitoring plan outlined by the Alberta and Canada governments attempts to address this lack of understanding with a more holistic monitoring scheme that aims to characterize chemical presence and cycling across various environmental media (52).
GCV: Describe this “holistic monitoring scheme” and how long do you think it will take to create better management strategies for the region?
AP: After the various review panel findings that the state of monitoring in the oil sands region was subpar, the Joint Oil Sands Monitoring Program was established jointly by the governments of Alberta and Canada. It seeks to use science-based monitoring to connect observations in air, water, and land, and better understand how these observations affect human and ecosystem health. It’s quite ambitious, and preliminary results are just starting to come in. Because of this, I think it might take at least a couple of years to even begin to come up with better management strategies since these strategies should be based on a scientifically sound, holistic understanding of environmental impacts in the region that we are still lacking.

University of Toronto Study on PAH Emissions in Oil Sands Region
Abha Parajulee and Frank Wania
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
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