Study: Oil sands polluting Alberta river system
Oil sands operations are polluting the Athabasca River system, researchers said, contradicting the Alberta government’s assertions that toxins in the watershed are naturally occurring.
In a study, researchers said mercury, arsenic, lead, and cadmium are among the toxins being released into the Athabasca, which flows north through the region’s major oil sands operations, according to Reuters.
The findings of the study, co-authored by University of Alberta biological scientists Erin Kelly and David Schindler, should be a signal for the Alberta government to finally consider limits on oil sands development, Schindler said.
“I really think it’s time to cut down the expansion until some of those problems and how to reduce them are solved,” he said.
The environmental impact of developing the oil sands, the biggest reserves of crude outside the Middle East, has been a topic of snowballing controversy in Canada and around the world. The Alberta government has devoted millions of dollars to defend the multibillion-dollar industry.
The latest research is published in the scientific journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
Schindler said the incidence of pollutants in fish is particularly worrisome, as local populations depend on the region’s fishery for food.
“I don’t think the concentrations alone are dangerous. I worry about some of them, like mercury, because there, parts per trillion translate into parts per million in fish,” he said.
A government-supported agency, called the Regional Aquatics Monitoring Program (RAMP), has published material as recently as 2009 saying water quality in the Athabasca River was similar now to conditions before oil sands development.
But Schindler said the RAMP monitoring and findings “violate every rule” of long-term study, and his research showed the opposite.
“We deliberately planned the study to test that claim,” he said.
Sampling upstream and downstream from industrial activity showed higher concentrations of pollutants closer to the oil sands plants, he said.