Researchers Link Pollution to Oil Sands, Monitoring Body Disagrees

alberta oil sands photo

Image credit: Wikimedia Commons

It's not a huge surprise that the oil sands—which have been described as the "most destructive project on earth" and were likened to Mordor by a United Nations water advisor—are leaking toxins into nearby streams.

Still, the Regional Aquatic Monitoring Program (RAMP), the body responsible for monitoring water pollution from the project, has not found what it considers abnormal levels of pollutants downstream from mining operations.Now, in a report that contradicts the findings from both the Canadian government and mining industry, a group of researchers claim to have found a definitive link between tar sands operations and higher levels of pollutants in nearby streams.

Establishing a Natural Background

Since the beginning, pollutants have been present in the streams in this part of Alberta. The claim, which has been buoyed by RAMP research, has been that their presence is the result of a natural source: The oil in the soil that the tar sands operation hopes to extract.

David Schindler, a researcher at the University of Alberta, Edmonton, and the lead author of the report, explained that "industry's response has always been 'of course there are carcinogens in the water, there's a natural source'...but it defied logic to think that all that was going in was natural."

Toxic Enough to Harm Fish

Schindler's research, to be published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, found a 10 to 50 fold increase in the levels of polycyclic aromatic compounds (PACs) downstream from mining operations. Samples taken from locations downstream on the Athabasca River were compared to samples taken from upstream sites.

This increase, reaching concentrations as high as 0.7 micrograms per liter, is well above the 0.4 micrograms per liter threshold that can be toxic to fish.

The Truth is in the Snow

Researchers also took snowpack samples near an upgrading facility. When the snow was melted, an oily residue was left floating on the top. Its proof, they argue, that mining operations are polluting the surrounding air and water with chemicals known to be carcinogens, mutagens, and teratogens.

RAMP and its Discontents

Established in 1997, RAMP is composed of representatives from the government, aboriginal communities, environmental groups, and industry. The organization explains that it:

Employs scientifically credible methodology, and has typically restricted access to its data in order to encourage membership

The authors of the study, however, point to what they call "serious deficits" in their research. Criticisms included "an inconsistent sampling design, a lack of strong government leadership, and datasets that aren't open to the public."

Simon Dyer, from the Pembina Institute, an environmental group that withdrew its membership from RAMP in 2001, commented that "There have been a number of critiques of RAMP to suggest it's scientifically not adequate."

RAMP representatives point to the $380,000 the Alberta government spends annually to audit environmental reports and the fact that less than half of the group consists of members of industry. Still, David Schindler says "It's a bad idea to have industry monitoring itself...sort of like abolishing the police and asking people to pull over if they see they're speeding and report themselves."

Instead, he suggests that the federal government should take complete control over monitoring and that all data be made public. He also recommends operations install scrubbers on smokestacks, wet down roads covered in mining dust, and keeping mining operations from moving to the water's edge.

Read more about tar sands:
Tar Sands: The Most Destructive Project on Earth
Alberta Tar Sands: A North American Overview
A Picture is Worth... The Alberta Tar Sands
National Geographic Slams Tar Sands - Canadian Politicians Pissed
Canadian Tar Sands Look Like Tolkein's Mordor Says UN Water Advisor

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