Wednesday, March 9, 2011

The Canadian Oil Sands - More Rigorous Environmental Monitoring

Today in Alberta, a panel commissioned by the provincial government released its report which examined conflicting interpretations of water quality data from the Fort McMurray area and the Athabasca River watershed.  The report entitled "Evaluation of Four Reports on Contamination of the Athabasca River System by Oil Sands Operations" is available here.

The six member panel, consisting of experts in science, academia, health, regulations and public administration, was commissioned in the fall of 2010 by Alberta Environment Minister Rob Renner in an attempt to resolve differences between the conclusions of government, industry and independent scientists over the impact of oil sands mining operations on water quality in northeastern Alberta.  In large part, the conflicting interpretation was between two main players, the Regional Aquatics Monitoring Program or RAMP and University of Alberta ecologists Dr. David Schindler and Dr. Erin Kelly.

The Alberta government had, for years, taken the attitude that the majority of oil sands-related pollutants detected in areas that are downstream of oil sands mining operations are derived from the natural erosion of sand-bearing outcrops along the Athabasca River and its tributaries.  Here's a quote from Minister Renner back in September 2010 after the release of the second Schindler report:

"My scientists are telling me that the amount of compounds that can be detected in the Athabasca River at this point in time are not a concern and are of insignificant levels.  The fact remains that there are naturally occurring substances in the water. And if we had never set foot in the region those kinds of results would still be there."

Here's a bit of background on the two main players and their stance on the issue of environmental contamination related to oil sands industrial operations.

RAMP, according to their own description 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)

Here's a screen capture showing the current membership of the RAMP Steering Committee:

The membership of RAMP is pretty much a who's who of oil sands operators in Alberta.

RAMP's 2009 study concluded that over the years that they had been sampling the watershed adjacent to oil sands operations, no noticeable increase in contamination had taken place when comparing 2009 data from baseline data and that there was very little year-to-year variation.  It does seem more than a bit odd that RAMP choose to ignore a scientific peer review that raised concerns about the scientific methodology used by RAMP as shown here and that another peer review scheduled for 2009 is nowhere to be seen.  

Dr. David Schindler is a Professor of Ecology at the University of Alberta in Edmonton.  He led the battle against the detrimental effects of both phosphates and acidifying pollutants such as sulphur dioxide (remember that nasty acid rain?) by convincing regulators in both Canada and the United States that stricter controls on both substances would improve the ecology of water bodies in both countries.

The issue of scientific incompatibility came to a head in both December of 2009 and September of 2010 when Dr. Schindler's report on the presence of polycyclic aromatic compounds (PACs) and a separate report on the presence of toxic heavy metals in the environment adjacent to oil sands mining operations were released in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS).  Basically, the oil industry, the government and RAMP have been claiming that elevated levels of PACs and heavy metals in the Athabasca watershed are related to natural wind and water erosion of oil-bearing sand outcrops adjacent to the river.  Dr. Schindler used a novel approach to prove that this was not the case; he used melt water from snow samples collected during the winter when wind erosion was minimal.  This also removed the impact of water erosion since the melt water was never in contact with the oil sands outcrops.  In both of Dr. Schindler's reports, he found that contamination was greatest closest to the oil sands operations and decreased as one moved away from the mined areas.  This was in complete contrast to the conclusions of the aforementioned RAMP study.  Sadly enough, the Alberta government and other stakeholders actually chose to believe the industry-funded RAMP conclusions over those of a completely independent scientist.

Back to today's announcement.  Here is what the panel had to say about the issue of determining the level of contamination as a whole and about the Schindler and Kelly studies in particular:

To assess contaminants in the rivers and watershed that are contributed by oil sands operations is made difficult by the scarcity of information on natural historical background levels and on true reference sites. This is generally understood, but must be kept in mind where the various reports refer to "upstream" versus "downstream," “background" versus "near development," and "test" versus "baseline" sites or conditions. There are at least four underlying causes for absence of adequate reference sites. First, no monitoring programs were put in place until well after oil sands operations began. Second, once they were in place occasional changes in analytical labs used and in detection limits have complicated assessment of temporal trends. Third, locations and amounts of natural inputs, especially by groundwater inflows, are poorly known. In many cases such natural inputs are upriver of oil sands operations. And fourth, aerial dispersal and subsequent deposition of contaminants generated by oil sands operations will often be southward, i.e. upriver of Fort McMurray, as winds are frequently from the north.

There are several reasons for the apparent differences of opinion about whether oil sands contaminants are derived from natural sources or the oil sands industry (“the controversy”). Two main reasons are: 1) each of the databases in these reports is limited in terms of quality, quantity and/or lack of spatial and temporal resolutions. They cannot scientifically justify all of the inferences that have been reported; and 2) each study used different reference sites to compare levels of contaminants attributed to natural sources and human activities.

Taking into consideration all data and critiques, we generally agree with the conclusion of Kelly et al. that PACs and trace metals are being introduced into the environment by oil sands operations. However, their estimates of PAC deposition rates must be regarded as only approximate and preliminary in nature. We agree with Kelly et al. that it is improbable that the snowpack-deposited contaminants could have resulted from wind erosion of bitumen outcrops or bitumen-containing soils in undisturbed landscapes – especially under snow-cover. Information on PAC concentrations in water provided by Kelly et al. is less conclusive. While many of the differences they document are consistent with large inputs of contaminants from oil sands operations, their water data do not allow for a quantitative analysis of the relative contributions of natural loadings and those due to oil sands operations. The comments above are equally valid for trace metals." (my bold)

Here's what the panel had to say about RAMP's efforts:

"The Regional Aquatics Monitoring Program (RAMP) has a very extensive monitoring design. But the Committee believes the program is spending large amounts of time and resources on obtaining water quality data that are difficult to interpret because the systems they are monitoring are large, complex and variable, and their sampling frequencies are too low and the sampling locations are not adequate to account for this. Although many different trace metals are measured in the samples collected, only a few of these fit the program’s monitoring criteria and hence the others are not reported. Data for all trace metals measured in water samples should be included in future reports by RAMP." (my bold)

Here's their summary attempt at putting the entire picture together:

"We generally see no conflict among the conclusions from Kelly et al., the Alberta Environment report, and the RAMP reports. Although the Alberta Environment trace metals data from before 2004 are invalid, most of the data in these reports are valid. The Kelly et al. study was highly focused, the Alberta Environment study examined long-term trends, and RAMP elucidated patterns in water quality and inputs over space and time, but at a low sampling frequency. Because all of these studies had a different focus, their conclusions generally did not conflict, despite occasional differences in interpretations or neglected patterns.

We think Kelly et al.’s study, in spite of some uncertain statements on loadings and risks, has been important in pointing out deficiencies in current monitoring programs in the oil sands area. We believe it is in the best interests of the public and the oil sands industry to make sure all monitoring programs are conducted with scientific rigor and oversight.

The studies by Kelly et al. have served to focus attention on some critical issues that can be resolved in a new monitoring program now being designed by a committee set up by the Alberta Minister of the Environment. This program can build on elements and concepts of the three existing programs to address the issues of whether the releases from oil sands production are causing adverse effects on aquatic and terrestrial organisms. This monitoring should consider effects in tributaries, especially during critical periods of flow in the river. The accumulation of residues in the delta, Lake Athabasca and their biota also merit special attention, with expanded biological monitoring and focused scientific investigations to assess risk." (my bold)

Basically, the panel concluded that more comprehensive scientific analysis and monitoring are necessary to ensure that all stakeholders understand the impact of oil sands mining and processing operations on the Athabasca watershed.  As well, while each of the studies had its own merits, because they were focussed on different issues, the conclusions are to put it delicately, inconclusive.  However, the panel does note that the Schindler and Kelly reports do point out one thing - the current monitoring programs in the oil sands operating areas are deficient and that it is necessary to ensure that proper scientific oversight is in place when collecting data and when drawing conclusions from that data.  That is something that has been lacking in the past.

In conclusion, it will become increasingly important that the oil industry and the Alberta government have a full understanding of the environmental impact of oil sands operations particularly when the industry is planning this for the future:

If the stakeholders including local residents, downstream Aboriginal peoples, the government and the industry doesn't understand the environmental footprint that is being left behind now, it will only get much, much worse as production ramps up.

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