Metals in the water: Athabasca River study

EDMONTON — A new study shows that heavy metals including lead and mercury which are being released from oilsands facilities into the air and water of northern Alberta are already above levels considered hazardous to fish.

EDMONTON — A new study shows that heavy metals including lead and mercury which are being released from oilsands facilities into the air and water of northern Alberta are already above levels considered hazardous to fish.

The study, published Monday in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, takes aim at the province’s environmental monitoring and dismisses government claims that the contaminants come from natural sources.

“Contrary to claims made by industry and government in the popular press, the oilsands industry substantially increases the loadings of toxic (priority pollutants) into the Athabasca River and its tributaries via air and water pathways,” concludes the report.

But while the Alberta government accepts that some contamination may be coming from industry, it says there still isn’t enough information to know if that’s the main source.

“It’s very difficult in many cases to attribute water-quality trends to one particular factor,” said Kim Westcott of Alberta Environment. “It’s quite a complicated thing to tease apart.”

In 2008, Schindler’s team set up monitoring stations on the Athabasca and several of its tributaries. Some stations were upstream of both the oilsands and its facilities. Others were in the middle of the bitumen deposits but upstream of industry, and the rest were downstream of both.

The team found that heavy metals did not increase until the streams flowed past oilsands facilities, especially when they flowed past new construction.

“As soon as there was over 25 per cent watershed disturbance we had big increases in all of the contaminants that we measured — just stripping of the soil and trees in preparation for mining or building,” said Schindler.

The contaminants were also being emitted from ongoing operations, the research found.

Schindler found metal levels increased in spring, as would be expected if a winter’s worth of deposition on snow and ice were being flushed downstream during the melting season.

The metals involved include not only lead and mercury — both neurotoxins — but also cadmium, copper, nickel, silver and seven other metals considered priority pollutants by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Levels of the metals remain below human health thresholds. But concentrations at some test sites at some times of the year are already greater than those set by the Canadian Council of Ministers of the Environment to protect marine ecosystems — sometimes much greater.

Cadmium levels ranged between 30 and 200 times over the guideline. Silver levels were 13 times higher than recommended at one site, and copper, lead, mercury, nickel and zinc were five times the suggested limit.

Those toxins are being passed along to animals eaten as food, said Schindler.

“Any animal that browses in the area is going to be taking in higher levels of the same contaminants,” he said.

Caroline Bampfylde of Alberta Environment said early results from government data taken at 11 sites in the area in 2009 aren’t conclusive.

“There isn’t really a consistent pattern, across metals or across locations,” she said. “There isn’t a consistent signal.”

As well, she said 33 years of monitoring at the Athabasca Delta, far downstream of the oilsands industry, has shown no increase in contamination.

The Alberta government has long maintained that contaminants increase near oilsands mines because that’s where deposits are most concentrated. It contends the higher metal levels are the result of the Athabasca eroding natural outcrops of bitumen.

Schindler pours scorn on that theory and is harshly critical of the government’s Regional Aquatic Monitoring Program.

“There should be very little trust in propaganda put out by the Alberta government,” he said. “It’s almost as if they’ve taken the textbook in how to develop a long-term monitoring program and violated every rule,” Schindler said.

Westcott defends the government efforts.

“The RAMP is a comprehensive program,” she said. “It’s not a perfect program, but I think it will be very interesting once we have Dr. Schindler’s data to compare that to the RAMP.”

The program is much improved since the less-than-flattering results of a 2004 peer review, she said.

Westcott added that the Alberta Research Council is in the middle of a study using isotope analysis to finally pin down how much of the heavy metals in the Athabasca come from industry. A similar study using another form of chemical signature is being conducted on hydrocarbon emissions.

Schindler said it’s time the federal government stepped in.

“(Environment Canada) delegated it to the province, which they shouldn’t have been doing, and the province in turn delegated all the monitoring to industry itself.”

Liberal MP Francis Scarpaleggia, who helped write the party’s report on the water and the oilsands after a two-year study, agreed that Ottawa has abandoned the issue.

“The federal government has devolved its constitutional responsibilities for protecting fish-bearing freshwater in the oilsands region to the Alberta government, which in turn has given self-regulatory powers to the industry,” he wrote in an email.

Provincial programs, he said, “have proven unable to properly monitor the water-pollution effects of oilsands development or establish proper rules.”

Federal Environment Minister Jim Prentice said federal scientists are working with Alberta on environmental monitoring, including assisting in the chemical signature study.

“We will continue to work with the Alberta government to monitor the development and growth of the oilsands in an environmentally responsible manner.”

New Democrat MLA Rachel Notley said Schindler’s study further damages Alberta’s environmental credibility at a time when it’s under international attack. She said it’s time the province changed its approach to monitoring and enforcing rules rather than mounting public relations campaigns.

“That’s the only true, honest way to fix our reputation. And up until now, the government has been playing a smoke-and-mirrors game while effectively acting as part of the oil industry’s public relations team.”

Schindler’s study is the latest to take aim at environmental monitoring in the oilsands region.

He released a paper last December based on the same research that showed hydrocarbon pollution is nearly five times greater and twice as widespread as industry figures say.

Other studies suggest that greenhouse gas emissions from the oilsands are being underestimated by nearly a quarter. One paper blamed increased soil acidification on the industry.