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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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