Environment Canada Report: Tar Sands Leaching Into Snow, Harming Fish

(Photo: Todd Korol / Reuters)

Environment Canada Report: Tar Sands Leaching Into Snow, Harming Fish

Study confirms previous findings, but may not get much play

Toxic substances found in snow near Alberta tar sands is dangerous to fish eggs, a new report by Environment Canada says.

The contaminants, including various metals such as mercury, leave the melting snow and run into lakes in an area scientists say "is four times bigger than we found," University of Alberta biologist Davis Schindler said.

The study "confirms my worst fears," Schindler told CBC News, and lends credence to a 2009 study by Schindler that found contaminants in snow near tar sands and, later, a fish with a tumor they believed was linked to tar sands contamination. He added that the increase in toxins "seem to parallel the development of the tar sands industry.

Environment Canada was expected to present the results of its study Wednesday at a meeting of the Society of Environmental Toxicology and Chemistry in Canada.

A team led by federal scientist Jane Kirk of Environment Canada found that snow within 50 kilometers of tar sands operations is contaminated with many "priority pollutants" including a methyl mercury, a neurotoxin that "bioaccumulates" in food webs, PostMediareports.

Another study to be presented Wednesday found that hydrocarbons in lakes near the tar sands have risen by two to 23 times since the beginning of exploration of the tar sands 60 years ago.

The contaminants are collecting on the bottom of lakes up to 100 kilometers away, according to the report, indicating that pollution is spreading further than expected.

The sediments are ""quite distinct in all the lakes," Derek Muir, a senior Environment Canada scientist, told PostMedia News.

Environment Canada exposed fathead minnows--which Joanne Parrot of Environment Canada described to PostMedia News as "the lab rat of the fish world-- to melt water from snow, and "The larval fish didn't do well at all."

That may explain why fish numbers in the Muskeg River, a tributary of Lake Athabasca, have "plummeted" in recent decades, Schindler said, and why deformed fish are now found in a nearby lake.

Schindler continued:

I think what could happen is that the few embryos that manage to survive, deformed as they are, struggle down to Lake Athabasca. While the deformed fish may not have a high load of contaminants, the fish look so horrible people won't eat them. I think that's fair enough, they wouldn't sell in Safeway.

Not only fish are affected, but more than 130 species of migratory birds and other habitat.

In October, US and Canadian environmental groups including Earthjustice and Ecojustice submitted a letter to the Canadian environmental Assessment Aagency asking for review of Shell Canada's proposed Jackpine Mine Expansion project because it would harm at least 130 migratory bird species.

They also pointed to data from Shell itself that indicated there would be severe impacts on wildlife habitat if tarsands operations were expanded as planned.

The Environment Canada work is part of the Joint Canada-Alberta Implementation Plan for Oilsands (tar sands) Monitoring, PostMedia reports. The federal and Alberta governments have billed it as a "transparent and accountable" system designed to improve understanding of the long-term cumulative effects of tar sands development.

But environmentalists including Chelsea Flook of the Prairies at the Sierra Club don't expect the research to get much attention, because scientists have been told to refer all questions to media liaisons.

Schindler said he would like the expansion delayed at least until the environmental impacts of existing tar sands operations are understood.

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