by Carol Linnitt
November 14, 2012
from DesmogBlog Website






Today federal scientists from Environment Canada presented research at an international toxicology conference in the U.S. that indicates contaminants from the Alberta tar sands are polluting the landscape on a scale much larger than previously thought.

A team lead by federal scientist Jane Kirk discovered contaminants in lakes as far as 100 kilometers away from tar sands operations.


The federal research confirms and expands upon the hotly contested findings of aquatic scientist David Schindler who, in 2010, found pollution from the tar sands accumulating on the landscape up to 50 kilometers away.

"That means the footprint is four times bigger than we found," Schindler told Postmedia News.

Senior scientist Derek Muir, who presented some of the findings at Wednesday's conference, said the contaminated region is,

"potentially larger than we might have anticipated."

The 'legacy' of chemicals in lake sediment gives evidence that tar sands pollution has been traveling long distances for decades.


Samples show the build up of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, or PAHs, known to cause cancer in humans and to be toxic to aquatic animals, in 6 remote and undisturbed lakes up to 100 kilometers away from tar sands operations.

The pollutants are "petrogenic" in nature, meaning they are petroleum derived, and have steadily and dramatically increased since the 1970s, showing the contaminant levels,

"seem to parallel the development of the oil-sands industry," Muir said.

After the release of Schindler's groundbreaking research on tar sands pollution in 2010 the Alberta government claimed the 'contaminants were naturally occurring' and posed no risk to aquatic life.


However at today's conference, the annual meeting of the North American Society of Environmental Toxicology and Chemistry (SETAC), Kirk discussed the long list of 'priority pollutants' that accumulate in the region's snow.


Within 50 kilometers of the tar sands, snowpack contains numerous contaminants including dangerous neurotoxins, such as methyl mercury, that bioaccumulate in food webs.


Kirk found priority pollutants in the air were 1.5 to 13 times higher at test sites within 50 kilometers of tar sands refineries, and highest within 10 kilometers.


Abstracts for Kirk, Parrott and Muir's presentations can be found on pages 103 and 104 of the conference program.

"We don't really know the fate of the various metals including mercury as they go from snow, to melt water to run-off and then into the aquatic environment," Muir told Postmedia.

The toxicity of melt water from snow falling in the tar sands region was researched by federal scientist Joanne Parrott, who also presented at the conference.


Studying snow samples taken in 2011 and 2012 along the Athabasca River, Parrott found that the melt water was toxic to minnow larvae, even when diluted down to 25 percent.

"The larval fish don't do very well in that snow at all," she said.

Parrott suggests melt water, once mixed with water from the Athabasca River, will no longer be toxic to minnows.


Snow melt, however, provides a significant amount of water to tributaries where fish hatch in the spring, says Schindler.

"My big concern is that slowly because of mortalities at spring melt, that this will erode the fishery, killing off the embryos," he told Postmedia, pointing to the abnormally low numbers of fish in the Muskeg River as a possible occurrence.

Parrott plans to expand her research to consider whether young fish in tributaries that feed the Athabasca River are affected by the pollution.


Schindler's research has already highlighted the increasing incidence of fish deformity in areas downstream of tar sands operations, like Lake Athabasca.

"I think what could happen is that the few embryos that manage to survive, deformed as they are, struggle down to Lake Athabasca," he said, adding the fish look "so horrible" the First Nations who depend on them for survival will not eat them, even if they don't have confirmed high levels of contaminants.


"I think that's fair enough, they wouldn't sell in Safeway," Schindler commented.

The scientists' presence at the conference is significant given the Harper government's strict control of scientific communications surrounding the tar sands.


Federal scientists were prevented from speaking with the media at the same conference in Boston last year.


An internal document uncovered by Postmedia instructed federal scientists to avoid answering media questions, saying,

"if scientists are approached for interviews at the conference, the EC communications policy will be followed by referring the journalist to the media number. An appropriate spokesperson will then be identified depending on journalist questions."

After Postmedia's Mike De Souza released the internal document last week, Environment Canada made arrangements for the news agency to speak with both Muir and Parrott.


Postmedia's Margaret Munro explains:

"Environment Canada earlier this month said scientists were not available to comment on their findings of contamination around the oil-sands.


The department’s media office arranged this week’s interviews with Muir and Parrott after Postmedia News obtained details of the reports the scientists will present at the U.S. conference on Wednesday."

As DeSmog covered in an earlier post, the Harper government's heavy-handed treatment of federal scientists led to a mass demonstration this summer, where scientists and academics mourned the "Death of Evidence," claiming "Stephen Harper Hates Science." 


The government's strict communications policy is seen by some as an attempt to silence critics voicing science-based opposition to development of the tar sands.



















Federal Research Confirms Oil-Sands Contamination
-   Researchers Discouraged from Speaking to Reporters, Document Says   -
by Mike De Souza

Postmedia News

November 7, 2012

from TheProvince Website


University of Alberta scientist David Schindler holds a whitefish with a tumor,

collected from the Athabasca watershed, downstream from the oilsands industrial development.
Photograph by: Ed Kaiser , Edmonton Journal



Environment Canada scientists have confirmed results published by researchers from the University of Alberta showing contaminants accumulating in the snow near oilsands operations, an internal federal document has revealed.

They also discovered contaminants in precipitation from testing in the region.

But the researchers were discouraged from speaking to reporters about their findings, first presented at a November 2011 conference in Boston of the Society of Environmental Toxicology and Chemistry, says the document, released to Postmedia News through access to information.

"EC's research conducted during winter 2010-11 confirms results already published by the University of Alberta that show contaminants in snow in the oilsands area," said a background document about Environment Canada's latest findings.

"If scientists are approached for interviews at the conference, the EC communications policy will be followed by referring the journalist to the media relations... phone number. An appropriate spokesperson will then be identified depending on journalist questions."

The original study, led by University of Alberta scientists Erin Kelly and David Schindler, analyzed winter snow and found that contamination levels were,

"highest near oilsands development compared to further away," said the document released by the government.

The document, which was attached to an email indicating the information was also in the hands of the office of Environment Minister Peter Kent, provided a scripted list of answers that explained researchers had tested the toxicity of the Athabasca River water in the spring of 2010 with negative results, and also that no link was established between levels of contaminants found and any effect on fish.

The scripted answers also recommended that the federal scientists decline answering questions about the cost of a monitoring system or about Environment Canada's role and actions in the region.

If asked questions of this nature, the scientists were told in the script to say:

"I am a scientist. I'm not in a position to answer that question but I'd be happy to refer you to an appropriate spokesperson."

The document also said that Environment Canada scientist Derek Muir, who was slated to attend the conference in Boston, and another senior department official, Dan Wicklum, would be allowed to answer questions from reporters,

"if approved by media relations."

Asked to comment on the Environment Canada document, Schindler welcomed the preliminary results, noting that some critics were,

"still trying to cast our study as being biased."

But Schindler praised the federal scientists, Muir and Jane Kirk.

"It is a good study, and Jane is a very fine young scientist, who should be trusted to comment on her own results," said Schindler in an email.


"Similarly, Derek Muir, her supervisor and a co-author, is one of the world's top contaminant experts, and Canadians should be ashamed that he cannot discuss results directly with the public, but must go through an official spokesperson."

An Environment Canada spokesman, Mark Johnson, said the scientists were not immediately available for interviews, noting that answers to questions about the research were included in the document.

He declined a request to release a copy of the presentation, delivered in Boston, explaining that it would be inappropriate to distribute it since it contained data being prepared for a peer-reviewed publication.

He also said that Environment Canada scientists, like other public servants, could not comment on policy matters.

Wicklum, who is also a scientist, took a leave of absence from his senior government position last January to accept a new job as chief executive of a new oil and gas company partnership set up to accelerate environmental performance of oilsands companies.

The Environment Canada document also said that substances found in the study were typical of development of all kinds and can even be found in the snow in cities with no heavy industry, but they were continuing their work.













Elevated Levels of Toxins Found in Athabasca River
by Josh Wingrove
August 30, 2010
from TheGlobeAndMail Website



A study set to be published on Monday has found elevated levels of mercury, lead and eleven other toxic elements in the oil sands' main fresh water source, the Athabasca River, refuting long-standing government and industry claims that water quality there hasn't been affected by oil sands development.

The author of the study,
University of Alberta biological scientist David Schindler, criticized the province and industry for an "absurd" system that obfuscates or fails to discover essential data about the river.

"I think they [the findings] are significant enough that they should trigger some interest in a better monitoring program than we have," he said.

The Athabasca has increasingly become a flashpoint for debate.


Earlier this year, Environment Minister Jim Prentice dismissed Dr. Schindler's previous peer-reviewed work as "allegations." Oil surfaces naturally in the Athabasca and its tributaries as the river erodes the bitumen below it.


The government argues it is this, not industry, that is the main cause of the pollution.

"The erosion of natural sources is huge. It far exceeds anything you'd be able to detect from the industrial component," said Preston McEachern, head of science, research and innovation for Alberta Environment.

He argues Dr. Schindler's conclusions don't accurately take that into account.

"There's nothing I would say the government absolutely disagrees with - other than the fact that in his paper, the context of the natural sources is not expressed as accurately as our data indicates it is."

Mr. McEachern argued government monitoring shows pollution hasn't significantly increased in the Athabasca.

Mr. McEachern added his counterpart's work is "a very good study" but lacked context.

"I don't think anybody's ever said the oil sands don't pollute at all," he said.

(An online Alberta government fact sheet states "data indicates no increased concentration of contaminants in surface water in the oil sands area.")

The study, to be published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, found the oil industry "releases" all 13 of the United States' Environmental Protection Agency's so-called priority pollutants, including mercury and lead, into the Athabasca at concentrations that are higher near industry during the summer.


In winter, before a melt, only levels of mercury, nickel and thallium were elevated near industry

Overall levels of seven elements - mercury, lead, cadmium, copper, nickel, silver and zinc - exceed those recommended by Alberta or Canada for the protection of aquatic life, it said, concluding the "oil sands industry substantially increases loadings" of toxins into the river.

The industry-led Regional Aquatics Monitoring Program (RAMP) oversees water quality in the river. Dr. Schindler is a critic of the system, and this month the Liberal Party of Canada lamented RAMP's "lack of transparency."

Simon Dyer, oil sands program director for the Pembina Institute, an environmental think-tank based in Calgary, said the research,

"make[s] the Alberta government's claim, that there is no pollution downstream of these sites, increasingly untenable."

A RAMP spokesperson was unavailable Sunday.


Travis Davies, a spokesman for the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers, insisted RAMP is,

"independently monitored" and "the Athabasca is one of the most stringently monitored and regulated rivers in the world."

Joe Obad, associate director of Alberta advocacy group Water Matters, called the study,

"the most detailed independent, peer-reviewed work we have seen so far on mercury and lead" in the oil sands.

The Globe and Mail received a copy of the study from a third party.