Levels of arsenic and lead increasing in northern Alberta’s oilsands

CALGARY — New Environment Canada data shows that mining in Alberta’s oilsands produces increasing quantities of deadly substances, including mercury, heavy metals and arsenic, reports the Globe and Mail.

CALGARY — New Environment Canada data shows that mining in Alberta’s oilsands produces increasing quantities of deadly substances, including mercury, heavy metals and arsenic, reports the Globe and Mail.

At least one environmental lawyer calls it a “catastrophic risk” to the area’s river systems but one research professor counters that everything’s toxic — it’s the concentration that counts.

In the last four years, the volume of arsenic and lead produced and deposited in tailings ponds by the country’s bitumen mines — run by Syncrude Canada Ltd., Suncor Energy Inc. (TSX:SU), Canadian Natural Resources Ltd. (TSX:CNQ) and Royal Dutch Shell PLC — has increased by 26 per cent. Quantities of some other substances have increased at even faster rates.

The data also detailed what pollutants those operations released into the air, including 70,658 tonnes of volatile organic compounds, which can damage the function of human organs and nervous systems, and 111,661 tonnes of sulphur dioxide, a key contributor to acid rain.

The numbers are contained in Environment Canada’s national pollutant release inventory, which details the dangerous compounds generated by industrial Canada.

It found that while the oilsands don’t overall produce as many dangerous substances as metal ore or iron ore mines, the oilsands operations do produce the overwhelming bulk of several dangerous substances.

For example, bitumen mines generated nearly all of the Canadian total of acenaphthene, one of a bevy of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons released around Fort McMurray, Alta.

Such substances can cause tumours of the lung, skin and bladder, and some are carcinogens. And their volumes are growing in northeastern Alberta: companies generated 42 per cent more acenaphthene in 2009 than they did in 2006.

Last year, oilsands mines also produced 322 tonnes of arsenic, 651 tonnes of lead and measurable volumes of mercury, chromium, vanadium, hydrogen sulphide and cadmium.

The numbers “are just ridiculously huge,” said Justin Duncan, a staff lawyer with Ecojustice who helped prosecute the 2007 court case that forced Environment Canada to release the data.

“You’re talking hundreds of thousands of kilograms of heavy metals going into some of these tailings ponds. If one of these things bursts, it’s a catastrophic risk to the Athabasca River system,” he said.

Yet scientists say simply knowing how much pollution is generated by the oilsands does little to show how toxic the mines’ tailings are. What’s needed is the concentration of the substances — a figure Environment Canada does not provide.

John Giesy, a professor at the University of Saskatchewan and the Canada Research Chair in Environmental Toxicology, points to a potato as an example: a grocery store spud contains 600 to 700 chemicals, some of them carcinogens, but they’re in such small quantities that they’re not harmful.

“Everything is toxic,” he said. “It’s the concentration that makes the poison.”

A research project at the University of Saskatchewan found some older tailings ponds are capable of sustaining fish life and virtually all tailings ponds can sustain invertebrate life.

And industry says it is working to improve matter. Travis Davies, spokesman for the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers, said companies will spend $1 billion in the next year to reduce tailings, “so you have less of these in the environment for any extended period of time.”

(Globe and Mail)

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