Oil sands down-stream pollution is 50 times higher than normal

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Syncrude Mildred Lake plant
Near Ft. McMurray, Alberta

By Stephanie Dearing – December 8, 2009

Perhaps Dr. John O'Connor as well as the residents of Fort Chipewyan might feel somewhat vindicated after their years of attempting to draw attention to pollution they said came from oil sands developments in Alberta were dismissed.

They were ignored until Dr. O'Connor started taking his concerns to a bigger audience. After that, Dr. O'Connor faced a lot of vitriole, and had complaints lodged against him by his colleagues working at Health Canada. Thanks to Dr. O'Connor's efforts, the government of Alberta finally undertook a study of cancer rates in Fort Chipewyan, finding that what Dr. O'Connor said was true - there was a higher incidence of cancer than expected.

Since then, Dr. O'Connor was cleared by the College of Physicians and Surgeons of Alberta when they dismissed the complaints against him. But even after all that, the only action that has been promised to the people of Fort Chipewyan is further research into the cancer rates.

An independent research study on pollutants in the Athabasca river, published Monday in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences might become the next big tool for proponents trying to get some action taken on tar sands pollution.

The research, titled, Oil sands development contributes polycyclic aromatic compounds to the Athabasca River and its tributaries was carried out by seven scientists from two Canadian universities and an Alaska-based organization called Oceana. In the introduction, the scientists say

"For over a decade, the contribution of oil sands mining and processing to the pollution of the Athabasca River has been controversial. We show that the oil sands development is a greater source of contamination than previously realized."

The report provides stunning information. The levels of toxic pollution attributable to the oil sands industries is, in some instances, 50 times higher than what had been thought was the case.

"This amount of bitumen released in a pulse would be equivalent to a major oil spill, repeated annually."

The report also said that there was no detailed monitoring of PAC fluxes. PACs are toxic chemicals, such as benzene. Some of these chemicals are also carcinogenic. The PACs emitted from oil sand plants were found to be both air and water-borne.

In their introduction, the researchers note that "... government, industry and related agencies ..." believe pollution from oil sand plants

"... are minimal, that natural sources cause elevated contaminant concentrations in the Athabasca and its tributaries, and that human health and the environment are not at risk from oil sands development."

The authors are critical of the Regional Aquatic Monitoring Program (RAMP).

"... Since 1997, the RAMP, funded by industry and directed by a multistakeholder committee, has monitored aquatic ecosystems near the oil sands development. However, it lacks scientific oversight, and a peer review severely criticized its ability to detect effects. RAMP data are not publicly available, and the methods used to analyze, interpret, and report the data are not entirely transparent."

The authors conclude

"Our study confirms the serious defects of the RAMP (12). More than 10 years of inconsistent sampling design, inadequate statistical power, and monitoring-insensitive responses have missed major sources of PAC [polycyclic aromatic compounds] to the Athabasca watershed. Most importantly, RAMP claims that PAC concentrations are within baseline conditions and of natural origin have fostered the perception that high-intensity mining and processing have no serious environmental impacts. The existing RAMP must be redesigned with more scientific and technical oversight to better detect and track PAC discharges and effects."

The report also calls for tighter control on waterborne PACs, and oversight by an independent body.

Dr. David Schindler told the Slave River Journal

"We have shown the assumption of industry and government, that all pollution of the oilsands comes from natural sources, is false. Some of the chemicals we document are known carcinogens. The concentrations as a result of industry are high enough to harm fish. So there is good reason to be concerned."

Dr. David Schindler, who is with the University of Alberta, was awarded a $1 million prize when he was bestowed with the Gerhard Herzberg Gold Medal for Science and Engineering in 2001. Schindler has also been awarded a number of honorary degrees, and has also been the recipient of the Alberta Order of Excellence in 2008.

The other scientists who collaborated in the study include Jeffrey W. Short, the Pacific Science Director at Oceana; Erin N. Kelly, a graduate student of Dr. Schindler; Peter V. Hodson, with Queens University; Mingsheng Ma, University of Alberta; Alvin Kwan, also with the University of Alberta; Barbra L. Fortin, University of Alberta.

A documentary outlining Dr. John O'Connor's efforts to bring the attention of authorities to the pollution caused by the oil industry is called Downstream.

Original article on Digital Journal website