Today federal scientists from
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
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
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.
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
Abstracts for Kirk, Parrott and Muir's
presentations can be found on pages 103 and 104 of the
"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
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.
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,"
Parrott suggests melt water, once mixed with
water from the Athabasca River, will no longer be toxic to
Snow melt, however, provides a significant
amount of water to tributaries where fish hatch in the spring,
"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
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
"I think that's fair enough, they
wouldn't sell in Safeway,"
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.
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
relations...phone number. An appropriate spokesperson will
then be identified depending on journalist questions."
After Postmedia's Mike De Souza
internal document last week,
made arrangements for the news agency to
speak with both Muir and Parrott.
Margaret Munro explains:
"Environment Canada earlier this month
said scientists were not available to comment on their
findings of contamination around the oil-sands.
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
- Researchers Discouraged from
Speaking to Reporters, Document Says -
by Mike De Souza
November 7, 2012
Alberta scientist David Schindler holds a whitefish with a
the Athabasca watershed, downstream from the oilsands industrial
Photograph by: Ed Kaiser , Edmonton Journal
Environment Canada scientists have confirmed
results published by researchers
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
"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
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
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
"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
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
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
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
August 30, 2010
Elevated Levels of Toxins Found in
by Josh Wingrove
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
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
"make[s] the Alberta
government's claim, that there is no pollution downstream of
these sites, increasingly untenable."
A RAMP spokesperson was unavailable
Travis Davies, a spokesman
for the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers, insisted
"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.