Oilsands Operations Boosting Toxic Metals in Northern Watershed: Study

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Edmonton Journal

Oilsands Operations Boosting Toxic Metals in Northern Watershed: Study

by
Hanneke Brooymans

EDMONTON — Canada's oilsands industry is polluting northern waters
with toxic concentrations of metals, according to a study released
Monday.

The new research, published in the Proceedings of
the National Academy of Sciences, found that national or provincial
guidelines for the protection of aquatic life were exceeded for seven
metals considered toxic in low concentrations by the U.S. Environmental
Protection Agency — cadmium, copper, lead, mercury, nickel, silver and
zinc — in the Athabasca River watershed in northern Alberta.

The
results, which are certain to fuel growing global opposition to
Canada's $30-billion-a-year oilsands operations, contradict claims by
the Alberta government that toxins in the watershed are naturally
occurring. One of the study's authors argues that the new data ought to
convince the Alberta government to call a halt to any expansion of the
oilsands.

"I really think it's time to cut down the
expansion until some of those problems and how to reduce them are
solved," said David Schindler, a University of Alberta ecologist who
conducted the study with his colleague Erin Kelly and scientists from
Queen's University in Kingston and from Alaska.

Schindler said the results are particularly troubling for three dangerous metals: mercury, arsenic and lead.

"Mercury
has been high in fish for a long time, and our study shows there is
considerably more mercury going in then there was naturally," he said.
"There have been two studies in recent years that have shown that if you
change the input of mercury fish respond very quickly. So it's likely
that they're making already-contaminated fish even more contaminated."

In
all, the researchers found that industry releases 13 elements
considered priority pollutants under the U.S. Environmental Protection
Agency's Clean Water Act, via air and water, to the Athabasca River and
its watershed. The scientists also examined the 2008 snowpack and found
that all these pollutants, except selenium, were greater near oilsands
developments than at more remote sites. Bitumen upgraders and local
oilsands development were sources of airborne emissions.

The
study offers yet another black mark for an industry still reeling from a
year of bad publicity and growing political pressure around the world.
Recently, Alberta Premier Ed Stelmach wrote personally to the CEOs of
four major companies — the Walgreens drugstore chain, Levi Strauss, The
Gap and Timberland — that plan to boycott or reduce their use of
oilsands-derived fuel.

The new study found that the
difference in concentrations of the toxic metals became more pronounced
the more the area was disturbed by oilsands development. Concentrations
of mercury, nickel and thallium in winter and all 13 priority pollutants
in summer were greater in tributaries with watersheds more disturbed by
development than in less-disturbed watersheds, the study said.

At
sites downstream of development and within the Athabasca Delta,
concentrations of all priority pollutants, except beryllium and
selenium, remained greater than upstream of development. Concentrations
of some priority pollutants at one location in Lake Athabasca near Fort
Chipewyan were also greater than concentrations in the Athabasca River
upstream of development.

"I think the main thing that the
study shows is we have no reliable monitoring on that river system,"
Schindler said. "The people who should be concerned are Environment
Canada because our data show clearly that there are deleterious
substances getting into the river.

"The Fisheries Act says
there shall be no releases of that sort. It doesn't specify amounts or
concentrations. It's a total ban. Environment Canada is supposed to
enforce that subsection of the Fisheries Act."

The Alberta
government has disputed the suggestion that the province's lucrative
oilsands industry is adding significantly to the load of heavy metals in
the environment. Government officials have claimed that the Athabasca
watershed naturally contains a lot of heavy metals, and studies show
that virtually every metal increases steadily in concentration as you
proceed downstream from the foothills through Alberta.

Schindler said he and his colleagues tested that theory and found it to be full of holes.

"We
found that (concentrations) were highest right around industrial
development and as you move down river beyond that they actually tail
off — not to zero or to background, but they probably tail off to a
value that does reflect some natural input," he said. "But if you put it
all together, the big inputs are clearly industry."

Environment
Canada Minister Jim Prentice was not available for an interview, but
his press secretary forwarded comments he'd made in a letter to the
editor written Monday. Prentice said the federal government is committed
to tracking chemicals using a new chemical fingerprinting program that
uses state-of-the-art analytical equipment to identify whether chemicals
produced in the oilsands operations are seeping into the surrounding
environment.

"This equipment and research support will
allow scientists to identify unique chemical compounds produced during
oilsands processing that can be used as 'fingerprints' in the
ecosystem," he wrote.

This is the second part of a larger
study being conducted by Schindler and colleagues. The first results
were released last December. They showed that a class of chemicals
called polycyclic aromatic compounds, some of which are known
carcinogens, were being released into the air on airborne particles from
plant stacks and dusty oilsands mine sites and through run-off from
developed oilsands sites. Heavy metals are being released in the same
way.

Alberta Environment shied away from contradicting the
results of this latest study, saying they hadn't been able to access all
the data from Monday's study yet.

"Without the data it's
difficult for us to say anything responsibly about whether the amounts
are correct," said Kim Westcott, a senior government surface water
policy specialist.

"I think we can say that we are aware
there are industrial sources of contaminants to the river and this work
is an attempt to quantify those sources and that's a contribution to the
knowledge base and it's definitely welcome."

Caroline
Bampfylde, an ecosystem and risk assessment modeller, said the ministry
started its own three-year study on contaminants in the Athabasca River
and the tributaries in the oilsands area in March 2009. They will seek
publication of the results in a peer-reviewed scientific journal. They
will also compare them to Schindler's results. Bampfylde said the data
will be released as it becomes available, rather than waiting until the
end of the three years. The first set of data on polycyclic aromatic
hydrocarbons will be ready by the end of the year.

The ministry is also evaluating whether or not it needs to increase its level of monitoring.

The
study's other authors are Peter Hodson of Queen's University; Jeffrey
Short of water-conservation group Oceana in Juneau, Alaska; and Roseanna
Radmanovich and Charlene Nielsen of the University of Alberta.

With files from Reuters

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