Oil Sands Need More Study – Alberta

The Globe & Mail newspaper has published two articles concerning scientific studies of the impact of the oil sands on the environment. As usual, they do not provide links to the relevant studies, leaving commentary open to confirmation bias, misrepresentation and disinformation.

The articles are here:
Oil sands leaking contaminants into Alberta watersheds (Click here)
Alberta calls for more study of oil sands effects on environment (Click here)

This action was triggered by two scientific studies published in the reputable journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences showing that the government and industry reports by the Regional Aquatic Monitoring Program (RAMP), which were not peer reviewed, were fundamentally flawed.

These studies are here:
Oil sands development contributes polycyclic aromatic compounds to the Athabasca River and its tributaries (Click here)
Oil sands development contributes elements toxic at low concentrations to the Athabasca River and its tributaries (Click here)

The 2010 study shows that oilsands mining and processing are polluting the Athabasca River

Inorganic elements known to be toxic at low concentrations are being discharged to air and water by oilsands mining and processing according to University of Alberta (U of A) research findings being published this month in one of the world’s top scientific journals.

The 13 elements being discharged include mercury, arsenic, lead, cadmium and several other metals known to be toxic at trace levels. The paper appeared in the August 30 edition of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS).

The results are not surprising according to corresponding author David Schindler – an internationally acclaimed researcher in the Department of Biological Sciences at the U of A – given the huge amounts of many of the same elements that the industry has reported discharging, according to Environment Canada‘s National Pollutant Release Inventory.

“Given the large amounts of pollutants released, any monitoring program that cannot detect increases in the environment must be considered as incompetent,” says Schindler, referring to the Regional Aquatic Monitoring Program.

“The U of A study was deliberately designed to test claims by industry and Alberta politicians that all contaminants in the river are from natural sources,” said Schindler.

This included examining patterns of deposition of pollutants in snow and releases to water both near to, and remote from, industry.

“Rather than pollutants increasing continuously downstream in the river due to natural sources, as government has claimed, concentrations of the majority of toxins were always highest near sites of industrial activity,” Schindler says.

He notes however that concentrations of many contaminants remained above background levels right up to the Athabasca Delta. Elevated concentrations were in Lake Athabasca, near Fort Chipewyan.

“The releases are in clear violation of section 36, subsection 3 of the Fisheries Act, which prohibits discharge of toxins in any quantity into fish-bearing waters.”

Schindler says much of the debate over the impact of oilsands has been based on a combination of conjecture and propaganda, which has not been peer reviewed or published in recognized scientific publications.

The earlier (December, 2009) paper by the research group documented the release by the oilsands industry of a number of organic carcinogens, similar to those released by the BP spill into the Gulf of Mexico, and the Exxon Valdez into the Gulf of Alaska.

Based in part on results from the Regional Aquatic Monitoring Program (RAMP), industry, government and related agencies claim that human health and the environment are not at risk from oil sands development and that sources of elements and polycyclic aromatic compounds (PAC) in the AR [Athabasca River]  and its tributaries are natural. However, the reliability of RAMP findings has been questioned repeatedly. Hence, accurate, independent assessments of the effects of the oil sands industry on concentrations of toxic elements in the AR and its tributaries are unavailable.

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One Response to Oil Sands Need More Study – Alberta

  1. Alan Burke says:

    The Schindler et al studies appear to have had a positive effect upon RAMP. They launched a “peer review” available online:

    RAMP 2010 Scientific Peer Review
    January 31, 2011

    This page provides links to various documents associated with the latest independent peer review conducted by the RAMP.

    RAMP initiated the peer review in June 2010, selecting Alberta Innovates – Technology Research (formerly the Alberta Research Council) as an independent third party facilitator to coordinate the Peer Review Process.

    RAMP undertook the review of its existing aquatic monitoring program to assess and update its program as part of RAMP’s focus on continuous improvement to its programs.

    Available for download are:

    * The final report issued by the nine-member review panel
    * RAMP’s response to the panel’s report
    * Terms of Reference for the peer reviewers
    * Peer Review panel selection process

    From the final report it is very clear that many RAMP objectives were not met and that improvement is required. The PDF document does not allow extractions of text so I recommend that you download it and review it yourself.

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