Athabasca River water very low in lead from oilsands: University of Alberta lab

New research suggests that heavy metals released from the oilsands aren't finding their way into nearby rivers.

EDMONTON — New research suggests that heavy metals released from the oilsands aren’t finding their way into nearby rivers.

“If you buy bottled water in a glass bottle, you’ll find five or 10 times more lead in that water than you would in the Athabasca River,” Bill Shotyk of the University of Alberta said Friday.

Shotyk was releasing preliminary results from the university’s new $4.7-million lab that is capable of measuring water contaminants to parts per quadrillion. Shotyk and his colleagues used that equipment to analyze water taken in October from 12 sites on the Athabasca River from just upstream of Fort McMurray to 125 kilometres downstream.

They found that the amount of heavy metal contamination dissolved in the water is vanishingly small – less than that found in remote rivers in wilderness parks.

“The lead values in the Athabasca River are much lower than the Nipissing River in (Ontario’s) Algonquin Park,” he said.

Shotyk didn’t measure major contaminants such as mercury and hydrocarbons, which have both been shown to be entering the environment from oilsands mines.

His results have not yet been peer-reviewed or published. But they promise to complicate the understanding of the environmental impact of the oilsands industry.

Previous studies from both university and government scientists have shown significant levels of heavy metals in the river and the regional snowpack. Those found increasing circles of concentration with the bull’s-eye centred on oilsands developments.

Shotyk said the reason his results are different is that he focused exclusively on contaminants actually dissolved in the water. Other studies have included heavy metals found on particles suspended in the water as well.

“Those metals are in those mineral particles,” Shotyk said.

“I would guess what we’re measuring dissolved in the water is dwarfed by what the river’s moving naturally as sediments. But the part that we’re measuring – the dissolved part – that’s the part that’s relevant to the aquatic organisms.”

David Schindler, a University of Alberta ecologist who did some of the first work measuring heavy metal emissions from the oilsands, said Shotyk’s study in fact confirms his findings.

“It is no surprise that most of what is in the river is particulate,” he wrote in an email.

His team found the same thing when they analyzed the snowpack from the river surface.

“We analyzed both (for) dissolved and particulates, and most of the contaminants were in the particulate fraction. Most of the dissolved fractions were below limits of detection, which were very low.”

But he disputes Shotyk’s contention that heavy metals in sediments don’t find their way into plants and animals. Metals can contaminate sediment layers where organisms lay their eggs and hatch larvae, he said.

“Dissolved metals are not the whole story.”

Shotyk acknowledges that how contaminants move between sediments and living organisms are an active subject of study.

“That’s what I will be evaluating for the next 10 years. But there’s no question that heavy metals dissolved in the river are really low.”

More results from his lab are forthcoming, Shotyk promised. A colleague is conducting an analysis similar to the one done for heavy metals, but on polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, a cancer-causing toxin that has already been shown to be leaching into groundwater and evaporating into the air from oilsands tailings ponds.

“We’re putting together the pieces of the puzzle,” he said.

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

Alberta has 1,910 active cases of COVID-19 as of Wednesday. Red Deer is reporting five active cases, with 108 recovered. (File photo)
Red Deer reports 25th COVID-19 death

415 new cases identified provincially Saturday

More than 120,000 Albertans have signed up to get the COVID-19 vaccine in the first two days of appointment bookings. (Photo courtesy Alberta Health Services Twitter)
Alberta Health Services apologizes after seniors struggle to book vaccine appointments

The CEO and president of Alberta Health Services is apologizing after seniors… Continue reading

Red Deer’s Kyle Moore, 26, will be a houseguest on Season 9 of Big Brother Canada. (Photo courtesy Big Brother Canada)
Red Deer man will be a houseguest on Big Brother Canada

A Red Deer man will be a houseguest on the upcoming season… Continue reading

Red Deer Public Schools says that in the absence of additional funds from the provincial government, there was no consideration of using alternate classroom sites in the district. (AP Photo/Gregory Bull)
Red Deer Public Schools launches online engagement process

Red Deer Public schools is seeking community input to help ensure a… Continue reading

Red Deer Rebels defenceman Mason Ward battles with a Medicine Hat Tigers’ forward during the WHL Central Division season opener. (Photo by Rob Wallator/ Red Deer Rebels)
Tigers come back to spoil Red Deer Rebels home opener

It’s been nearly 345 days since the Red Deer Rebels last played… Continue reading

An arrest by Red Deer RCMP is facing online scrutiny. No charges have been laid and the incident is still under investigation. (Screenshot of YouTube video)
Red Deer RCMP investigating violent arrest caught on video

Police say officer ‘acted within the scope of his duties’

Ottawa Senators goaltender Matt Murray (30) stands in his crease as Calgary Flames left wing Andrew Mangiapane (88), left to right, defenceman Rasmus Andersson (4), Matthew Tkachuk (19), Mikael Backlund (11) and Mark Giordano (5) celebrate a goal during second period NHL action in Ottawa on Saturday, Feb. 27, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick
Calgary Flames beat Ottawa 6-3 to end Senators’ three-game win streak

Flames 6 Senators 3 OTTAWA — The Calgary Flames used a balanced… Continue reading

Toronto Maple Leafs centre Auston Matthews (34) falls on his knees as he skates around Ottawa Senators defenceman Artem Zub (2) during third period NHL hockey action in Toronto on Thursday, February 18, 2021. The Maple Leafs will be without star centre Auston Matthews when they take on the Edmonton Oilers Saturday. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Nathan Denette
Toronto star Auston Matthews won’t play as Leafs face Oilers

EDMONTON — The Maple Leafs will be without star centre Auston Matthews… Continue reading

Crosses are displayed in memory of the elderly who died from COVID-19 at the Camilla Care Community facility during the COVID-19 pandemic in Mississauga, Ont., on November 19, 2020. The number of people who would have died from a COVID-19 infection is likely to be much higher than recorded because of death certificates don't always list the virus as the cause of a fatality, experts say. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Nathan Denette
Death certificates don’t accurately reflect the toll of the pandemic, experts say

The number of people who would have died from a COVID-19 infection… Continue reading

A health-care worker prepares a dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine at a UHN COVID-19 vaccine clinic in Toronto, Thursday, Jan. 7, 2021. A single dose of Pfizer-BioNTech's COVID-19 vaccine is barely enough to cover the average pinky nail but is made up of more than 280 components and requires at least three manufacturing plants to produce. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Nathan Denette
From science to syringe: COVID-19 vaccines are miracles of science and supply chains

OTTAWA — A single dose of Pfizer-BioNTech’s COVID-19 vaccine is barely enough… Continue reading

Wetaskiwin RCMP say a Maskwacis man died after he was struck by a vehicle. (File photo by Advocate staff)
Clare’s Law in Saskatchewan used handful of times; Mounties review their role

REGINA — A first-of-its-kind law in Canada meant to warn those at… Continue reading

The Magpie river in Quebec is shown in a handout photo. THE CANADIAN PRESS/HO-Boreal River MANDATORY CREDIT
Quebec river granted legal rights as part of global ‘personhood’ movement

MONTREAL — With its kilometres of rapids and deep blue waters winding… Continue reading

Thorough sanding of a table top is usually the first step to renewing a finish. Wax contaminants can sometimes still remain on a surface like this after sanding. Cleaning with rubbing alcohol and a rag gets rid of these contaminants without leaving a residue behind. (Photo by Steve Maxwell)
Houseworks: Fixing wood finishes

Q: How can I stop polyurethane from beading up on a mahogany… Continue reading

Most Read