New Study Finds That Oil Sands Development a Greater Source of Contamination Than Previously Realized; Challenges Existing Monitoring Program
08 December 2009
A study by researchers in Canada and the US shows that oil sands development is a greater source of polycyclic aromatic compound (PAC) contamination to the Athabasca River and its tributaries than previously realized. The study was published online 7 December as an open access paper in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) of the US.
Bitumen production in the Alberta oil sands has increased rapidly, rising from 482,000 to 1.3 million barrels per day from 1995 to 2008; output is projected to reach 2.0 to 2.9 million barrels per day by 2020. Despite the claims of some residents in the area that the oil sands industry is responsible for higher than expected cancer rates, the government-industry Regional Aquatic Monitoring Program (RAMP) has reported that effects are minimal, and that human health and the environment are not at risk. The new study directly challenges the RAMP findings, and calls for a major redesign of the program.
Our study confirms the serious defects of the RAMP. More than 10 years of inconsistent sampling design, inadequate statistical power, and monitoring-insensitive responses have missed major sources of PAC to the Athabasca watershed. Most importantly, RAMP claims that PAC concentrations are within baseline conditions and of natural origin have fostered the perception that high-intensity mining and processing have no serious environmental impacts.
The existing RAMP must be redesigned with more scientific and technical oversight to better detect and track PAC discharges and effects. Oversight by an independent board of experts would make better use of monitoring resources and ensure that data are available for independent scrutiny and analyses. The scale and intensity of oil sands development and the complexity of PAC transport and fate in the Athabasca watershed demand the highest quality of scientific effort.
—Kelly et al.
The researchers conducted a detailed assessment of the loadings of PAC to the north-flowing Athabasca River, its tributaries, the Athabasca Delta, and Lake Athabasca. They sampled water and accumulated snowpack. Sampling sites were selected upstream and downstream of oils sands mining and processing activity.
Samples were analyzed for PAC. Melted snow was analyzed for the mass of particulate and associated PAC retained on glass fiber filters, and for dissolved PAC in filtrate. Among the findings were:
Within 50 km of oil sands upgrading facilities, the loading to the snowpack of airborne particulates was 11,400 T over 4 months and included 391 kg of polycyclic aromatic compounds (PAC), equivalent to 600 T of bitumen, while 168 kg of dissolved PAC was also deposited.
Dissolved PAC concentrations in tributaries to the Athabasca increased from 0.009 µg/L upstream of oil sands development to 0.023 µg/L in winter and to 0.202 µg/L in summer downstream.
In the Athabasca, dissolved PAC concentrations were mostly <0.025 µg/L in winter and 0.030 µg/L in summer, except near oil sands upgrading facilities and tailings ponds in winter (0.031–0.083 µg/L) and downstream of new development in summer (0.063–0.135 µg/L).
In the Athabasca and its tributaries, development within the past 2 years was related to elevated dissolved PAC concentrations that were likely toxic to fish embryos. In melted snow, dissolved PAC concentrations were up to 4.8 µg/L, thus, spring snowmelt and washout during rain events are important unknowns.
Due to substantial loadings of airborne PAC, the oil sands industry is a far greater source of regional PAC contamination than previously realized. Despite previous recommendations, there is no apparent detailed monitoring of PAC fluxes via wet and dry deposition in the winter or summer, when similar or greater contributions are likely. Monitoring of air, the snowpack, spring snowmelt, and summer rain and vegetation is essential to identify and control sources of PAC and their potential environmental and human health impacts. A second important source of PAC is landscape disturbance. Surprisingly, impacts are related primarily to recent disturbance (<2 y), which suggests that re-vegetation or erosion controls mitigate long-term loadings.
Controls on waterborne PAC are critical because concentrations at tributary mouths and at one site on the Athabasca are already within the range toxic to fish embryos. However, the impacts on the Athabasca ecosystem of mining wastewater, snowmelt, or contaminated groundwater remain enigmatic due to high seasonal variability of flow and dilution capacity.
—Kelly et al.
Erin N. Kelly, Jeffrey W. Short, David W. Schindler, Peter V. Hodson, Mingsheng Ma, Alvin K. Kwan, and Barbra L. Fortin (2009) Oil sands development contributes polycyclic aromatic compounds to the Athabasca River and its tributaries. PNAS doi: 10.1073/pnas.091205010
Posted by: Devon | 08 December 2009 at 09:33 AM
Imagine what pollution will be like, if extraction methods are not improved, when production is tripled by 2020?
Much of that pollution will cross the border with (prevailing NW winds.
Unless pollution emissions are taxed (or banned), operators will not change their ways and Alberta's current extremely high pollution (75 tonnes per capita per year) may reach 200 tonnes by 2020.
Posted by: HarveyD | 08 December 2009 at 09:48 AM
Thankfully, the development is taking place in a developed country with a valid environnmental record and enforcement to regulate excess.
Or are the enviro-greens admitting that all their attempts to regulate by government are useless. The obvious consequence is that we may as well disband and quit regulation, since it is wholly ineffective. Surely that is not the case.
The principle waste is the burning of raw bitumen to provide the energy for extraction. That this is at all practical, is that the Oil PRICE Crisis, as that is all it ever was, has divorced oil PRICE, with the cost of production. Having made the initial investment it will continue, even if the OIL PRICE is reduced, and it will eventually collapse, when demand turns down.
Proposals to provide a nuclear energy plant nearby to do so, are advancing and seem emminently reasonable way to provide the energy for mining.
The ulterior motive is to end energy as a method to force the death of millions by energy starvation in a Malthusian delusion proceeds at full speed.
It is the expressed religious FAITH of the totalitarian left. John Holdren speaking for these people, has published the desire to reduce North American population to 18 million 'Nobel Savages' ruled by a select coterie of their leftist faithful self-appointed betters; the new aristocacy of the Nomenklatura.
Posted by: Stan Peterson | 08 December 2009 at 10:31 AM
Stan...you are getting better at it...
The idea is NOT to go without energy, but to use cleaner energy....such as elctricity for ground transportation vehicles, HVAC, domestic, commercial, industrial and public usage.
There are many sustainable clean electricity sources.
Posted by: HarveyD | 08 December 2009 at 11:04 AM
If they have to build a nuclear power plant to provide the energy to extract these dirty stuff that would be the most utterly ridiculous situation. Use a clean energy to extract a dirty one, and not to mention the EROI that would probably be negative at this point. This is an idea as stupid as Stan Peterson posts.
When you are at this point better stop and start to think a bit how to use the electricity of the nuclear plant to directly power the cars.
Posted by: Treehugger | 08 December 2009 at 07:45 PM
Stan, I see your point. Build a nuclear plant that requires expanded uranium mining to help clean up bitumen mining.
And as long as the economy is doing well, who cares if we're all dead.
Posted by: Paroway | 08 December 2009 at 09:14 PM
Recently, 20 out of 50 doctors in a small town, where a new Uranium mine is to be exploited, said they would resing and move to protect the health of the exposed local people.
Is that very common?
Posted by: HarveyD | 09 December 2009 at 06:05 AM
Not saying this study is wrong or even in question but what does
"10 years of inconsistent sampling design, inadequate statistical power, and monitoring-insensitive responses"
really mean?? Sounds extremely unfocused.
Posted by: Reel$$ | 09 December 2009 at 06:51 AM
Means non commitment and disinterest paying lip service.
Unhealthy rivers environmental destruction, business as usual and bigger profits.
Cynicism, lack of confidence that proper procedures will be implemented, lost credibility and protest, activism or maybe despondency depression and resignation.
Can't see anything positive,
Posted by: arnold | 09 December 2009 at 05:54 PM
"John Holdren speaking for these people, has published the desire to reduce North American population to 18 million 'Nobel Savages' ruled by a select coterie of their leftist faithful self-appointed betters; the new aristocacy of the Nomenklatura."
Somewhat scary. But perhaps an advanced civilization could teleport a small sampling of humanity (2-3M) to a suitable habitat and nurture them like a home ant farm. Wouldn't that be fun and educational for the advanced civilization.
Posted by: sulleny | 10 December 2009 at 02:22 PM
More and more influential Canadians and many Provinces, who reduced their per capita GHG by spending $$B, want Alberta to be fairly taxed for all the nasty pollutants and GHG it creates with their tar sand industries. Currently, most of the efforts made by the rest of Canada have been nullified by Alberta's rising pollutants and GHG emissions.
A fair way of doing it would be with a nationwide compensation fund. This fund would require a least $5 to $10/barrel on all oil extracted from tar sands + another $5/barrel equivalent (about $0.15/gallon) at the pump. The $5 to $10/barrel at the source could be adjusted up or down based on pollutants and GHG created by the tar sand industries.
Part of the national compensation fund would be used to refund the other Provinces (and Alberta if it occurs) for resources spent to lower pollutants and GHG.
Posted by: HarveyD | 14 December 2009 at 10:28 AM