Tuesday, September 7, 2010

The Athabasca River - how many politicians would drink the water?

A report released last week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America (PNAS) cites issues with toxic metals associated with the mining of tar sands in the Athabasca region of Alberta. The research was undertaken by a group of scientists in the Department of Biological Studies at the University of Alberta led by Dr. David W. Schindler, the Killam Memorial Professor of Ecology at University of Alberta and most critically, was done independently of industry input. This report is the second part of the study that was completed; the first part of the study which was released in December 2009, examined the presence of polycyclic aromatic compounds (PACs) in the environment around oil sands development. Since the report released today is not available online at this time, I will address the first part of the study in context with a study completed by the Regional Aquatic Monitoring Program.

The extensive study was undertaken because residents that live downstream on the Athabasca River in the Fort Chipewyan area are convinced that oil sands activity is responsible for higher than normal cancer rates. The group undertook the study because they were not convinced that previous studies undertaken by the Regional Aquatic Monitoring Program (RAMP), which concluded that human health is not at risk from oil sands development, was scientifically sound.

My intention with this posting is not to vilify the oil sands industry; unless we are all willing to cut back our consumption of hydrocarbons in all forms, our oil (and natural gas) has to come from somewhere. As a geoscientist, I believe that the world has reached peak cheap oil in terms of both economic and environmental cost of production and with world oil consumption continuing to grow and production levels stalled at levels reached five years ago, production from the oil sands is an unfortunate necessity all else being equal. What I am disappointed with are the attempts by both industry and government to convince us that the oil sands option is no worse than conventional oil production when it comes to the ultimate environmental cost. That is objectionable on many levels.

Back to the topic at hand. Let's take a look at RAMP first. Here's what they say about themselves from their website:

"RAMP is an industry-funded, multi-stakeholder environmental monitoring program initiated in 1997. The intent of RAMP is to integrate aquatic monitoring activities across different components of the aquatic environment, different geographical locations, and Athabasca oils sands and other developments in the Athabasca oil sands region so that long-term trends, regional issues and potential cumulative effects related to oil sands and other development can be identified and addressed ." (my bold)

Note the key phrase "industry-funded". Member companies are those companies that are constructing and operating oil sands projects in the RAMP Focus Study Area. Research of this type can hardly be seen to be independent since the industry is investigating itself. Just in case you wondered how independent RAMP is, here's a screen capture of the page showing who their members are:

Basically, their membership consists of a who's who of the Canadian oil sands industry with all of the large players being represented. Eleven of the twenty-two members are oil companies and one (the Alberta Energy Resources Conservation Board) is an industry-funded, quasi-judicial regulatory branch of the Alberta Government. Despite the obvious conflict of interest, here's another quote from the RAMP website (under the FAQ section):

"How can we trust RAMP to deliver accurate results?

RAMP is governed by a multi-stakeholder committee with representatives from all levels of government, Aboriginal communities, and industry. The Terms of Reference outlines issues of governance specific to RAMP and was developed to ensure all groups represented in RAMP are part of the decision process.

All data collected by RAMP are submitted on an annual basis to regulatory agencies within Alberta Environment, Environment Canada and the Department of Fisheries and Oceans for their assessment of the program and results.

Finally, RAMP periodically undertakes a scientific peer review of the entire program. The last review was conducted in 2004; however, a follow-up review is scheduled for 2009. Reviews are conducted to obtain an independent evaluation of the monitoring design and whether it is meeting the objectives of the program and the needs of local stakeholders."

So basically, it's a "trust us because we're such great people and really, we are looking out after your best interests" organization. It's interesting to note that the last scientific peer review of their program was undertaken in 2004 with another scheduled for 2009 that doesn't appear anywhere on their website.

The scientific peer review which is located here, found issues with the scientific leadership and lack of an overall regional plan among other issues. Here's a quote from the review:

"That being said, the reviewers raised significant concerns about the Program itself. They felt there was a serious problem related to scientific leadership, that individual components of the plan seemed to be designed, operated and analyzed independent of other components, that there was no overall regional plan, that clear questions were not been addressed in the monitoring and that there were significant shortfalls with respect to statistical design of the individual components."

That's hardly what I'd call a ringing endorsement of RAMP's conclusions by the wider scientific community.

Here are the conclusions from the 2009 version of the RAMP technical report for the Athabasca River:

"Water Quality In fall 2009, water quality at test and baseline stations in the Athabasca River were assessed as having Negligible-Low differences from regional baseline water quality conditions. Concentrations of water quality measurement endpoints at test stations were similar to those at baseline stations and were consistent with regional baseline concentrations. There were no consistent patterns between baseline and test stations in the selected water quality measurement endpoints. The ionic composition of water at all water quality monitoring stations in the Athabasca River mainstem in September 2009 was consistent with previous sampling years, showing little year-to- year variation."

Basically, RAMP's conclusion was that most of the elevated contaminant concentration results from natural sources not from the mining process itself and that the compounds would be there whether or not there was oil sands mining activity because of riverbank erosion. If you wish to peruse the entire report, be prepared to read nearly 800 pages of very detailed analysis chock full of pretty colour charts and graphs.

Now to compare the RAMP results with those from the University of Alberta-based report that was released in December 2009 by PNAS entitled "Oil sands development contributes polycyclic aromatic compounds to the Athabasca River and its tributaries". This report concluded that oil sands development was a greater source of PAC contamination than previously realized. Polycyclic aromatic compounds (PACs) are compounds found in crude oils, bitumens and tars. Many PACs are carcinogenic and mutagenic (they can cause mutations to genetic material); the structural composition of the particular PAC greatly affects its toxicity.Studies completed at the Columbia Centre for Children's Environmental Health suggest that exposure to PACs can result in lowered IQ levels in children.

The University of Alberta study found that concentrations of polycyclic aromatic compounds (PACs) were higher near oil sands upgrading facilities. PACs were released as particulate matter into the air from plant sites throughout the oil sands mining area and ended up widely scattered across the study area with substantial concentrations within 50 kilometre radius of both the Suncor and Syncrude operating areas. These PACs ended up in the snow pack during the winter and entered the Athabasca watershed during spring runoff. Integration of the amount of particulate matter over the 50 kilometre radius area from one sampling site indicated deposition of 11,400 metric Tonnes of particulates during a 4 month snowfall period. Further analysis showed that 391 kilograms of PCAs or 600 Tonnes of bitumen were deposited within the 50 kilometre radius of the one sampling site. In addition to the spreading of PACs through particulate emissions from the mine sites, oil sands development including road building, deforestation and exploration, may expose fresh bitumen to both wind and soil erosion which will result in increased PAC levels. The study found that PAC levels in one sampling site on the Athabasca River had reached the level where concentrations could be toxic to fish embryos.

Over the past 5 years, there has been a marked increase in the size of the area mined and the number of mines operating in the Fort McMurray area. I have no argument with the thesis that tar-bearing Cretaceous formations that the focus of the mining effort are outcropping throughout the area and that these sands are bisected by streams and rivers in the Athabasca River watershed. River bank erosion of these outcrops will definitely lead to some degree of water contamination. Scientists are studying the impact of the mining processes to better understand the sources for the contamination and assess what portion is natural and what portion is man-made. To conclude that none of the contamination results from industrial activity is naive at best and negligent at worst. As in any mining operation, be it for minerals, coal or oil, one has to suspect that there is at least some watershed contamination directly attributable to the mining activity. That has been proven thousands of times at mine sites and tailings waste piles all over the world. Here's a brief look at the impact that mining activities have on water quality in Canada.

Once I've had a chance to peruse part 2 of the Schindler study, I'll post a summary and commentary. Just in case you were wondering how the Alberta government responded to the release of part 2 of the Schindler study, you can listen to a press scrum with Alberta Environment Minister Rob Renner here. Notice how Mr. Renner manages to dodge a direct answer to the question whether or not he believes that oil sands activity has impacted water in the Athabasca River watershed in using typical political doublespeak. So the response to the study remains consistent among our politicians, here's what Federal of the Environment Jim Prentice (Conservative - Calgary Centre-North) had to say. Sometimes I wonder just how daft our politicians think we are.

Just in case the Alberta government changes its viewpoint on oil sands operations and contaminants of the Athabasca River watershed in the future once the evidence is incontrovertible, here's a screen capture showing what they've posted on their website about the Athabasca River Basin:

Interesting. Again I ask, how many politicians would drink water from the Athabasca River on a regular basis?


  1. Keep up the good work on this. Although, I agree with you that oil-sands production is a necessity for life as we know it. So, can anything be done about the toxins in the Athabasca River? Assuming we eventually admit it is there. I'd like to believe for just a moment, at least, that the industry is doing what it can to limit the amount they produce. Is there a viable cleanup method?

  2. Appreciate your comments on this, keep it up. What I want is "truth in advertising". What really bothers me is that the oil industry knows they are in for continued profitability as the supply of easy cheap oil dwindles. Our government knows how significant this is for their concept of prosperity. Why not put out all stops to honestly do absolutely everything they can to do their business in the least harmful way possible? Why not get at the whole truth and then learn how to do things in a less harmful way? The PR of doing things this way should be worth something to them.

  3. Thanks to both of you. The Alberta government, in particular, is rather desperate for the royalties generated by oil sands activities. Having spent decades in the industry, I know that companies don't really like anything that comes between them and the bottom line despite their protestations to the contrary although they will do their best to put a "clean" foot forward to the public.

    I don't really believe that government will force the industry to clean up its act until the science of what they are doing and the damage that they are causing is incontrovertible...by which time it is probably too late for the environment.


  5. Posted to facebook. Others do the same. Get this out there.

  6. Allow me to play Devils Advocate here

    Schindler ignored the fact that there is a closed uranium mine across the lake from Fort Chip that has been leaching uranium tailings into the lake for over 50 years and continues today.
    http://www.miningwatch.ca/en/toxicanada-13-good-reasons-establish-clean-canada-fund ( scroll down to Uranium City - Saskatchewan)
    If the OilSands are directly responsible for their health problems explain why the people of Fort McKay have less than half the health complaints yet live halfway between the OilSands and Fort Chip and are directly on the Athabasca River unlike Fort Chip which is on a lake ?
    As for hydrocarbons in the water system - the entire North is one big water and oil ecosystem. When Alexander MacKenzie first went up the Athabasca River in 1788 he wrote about the oil seeping into the river. His notes were responsible for Esso sending a geologist named Norman to Norman Wells in 1901 to check out MacKenzies 's report of oil flowing directly into the Mackenzie River.
    Nature started this long before man arrived in N. America.

  7. Schindler is a politician, not a scientist.

    He completely fails to point out the age old known facts about the regional geochemistry of the Athabasca River and its tributaries.

    There is on average 1.5 to 2 grams of carcinogenic PAH species in every kilogram of river bottom mud. These PAH species are found up stream, and down stream from the Oil Sands facilities.

    This is simply due to the fact that the Athabasca River has been eroding bitumen ore along its banks for 1000s of years. The PAH species are part of the bitumen, just as they are found in all petroluem grades around the world.

    Facts not fiction - how can you know unless you visit the area to understand and see for yourself!!

  8. Here's another study regarding recent increases in PAH concentrations in the Athabasca Delta:


  9. I don't conclude much from this fearmonger article. If you live in a volcanic area your water will naturally contain much higher concentrations of mercury then in none volcanic aquifers.

    So the PAH levels come mostly from natural erosion of the tar sand banks. So the residences want extra filtering to eliminate these contaminates which are at very diluted levels. You'd probably get as much from water in plastic containers. And on the linked PDF, you can look at those levels in ppm for significance which is next to none.

    It's like the EPA making a big deal about mercury emissions from coal. But in a more realistic view US power plants account for only 0.5% of the mercury in US air. The rest of the mercury in US air comes from natural and foreign sources, such as forest fires, Chinese power plants and the cremation of human remains (from tooth fillings that contain mercury and silver). EPA fails to recognize that mercury is abundant in the earth’s crust. It is absorbed by trees through their roots - and released into the atmosphere when the trees are burned in forest fires, fireplaces and wood-burning stoves. In fact, US forest fires annually emit as much mercury as all US coal-burning electrical power plants.

    Mercury in fish: Selenium in fish tissue is strongly attracted to mercury molecules and thus protects people against buildups of methylmercury, mercury’s more toxic form.

    So this whole scare of Alberta Tar Sand contamination may very well be blown out of perspective. The only danger is the safety of pipelines running through aquifers from leaking the very toxic and corrosive dilbit solution to a refinery. That could be the real issue.