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University of Alberta Researchers Find That Oil Sands Industry Is Releasing More Pollutants Into Athabasca River System Than Previously Estimated

New research from a team at the University of Alberta, Canada, finds that Alberta’s oilsands industry is releasing more pollutants into the Athabasca River, its tributaries and its watershed than previously estimated. An open access article on their study was published online in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Contrary to claims made by industry and government in the popular press, the oil sands industry substantially increases loadings of toxic PPE [priority pollutants] to the AR and its tributaries via air and water pathways. This increase confirms the serious defects of RAMP, which has not detected such patterns in the AR watershed. Detailed long-term monitoring is essential to distinguish the sources of these contaminants and control their potential impacts on environmental and human health. A robust monitoring program to measure exposure and health of fish, wildlife, and humans should be implemented in the region affected by oil sands development.

—Kelly et al.

University of Alberta ecologist David Schindler and the research team analyzed 13 elements in river water and snow pack along the Athabasca and its delta. The pollutants found include mercury, arsenic, lead and cadmium. The researchers say the releases are a clear violation of the federal fisheries act and provincial guidelines for protection of aquatic life.

Schindler says some of the metals interact with organic pollutants, making them more toxic. The combined impact of the toxins on the river is not fully understood.

The industry’s Regional Aquatic Monitoring Program and Alberta Environment’s monitoring have missed these releases and that’s a serious problem. We’ve repeatedly questioned RAMP’S findings and nothing has been done.

—David Schindler

Schindler says this study focused on toxic elements in the Athabasca, above and below the oil sands upgraders and included analysis of airborne pollutants in the snowpack. Last year the research team reported on organic pollutants from oil sands development and found carcinogens similar to those released by the recent BP spill in the Gulf of Mexico and the 1989 Exxon Valdez tanker spill in Alaska.

We have to establish a robust long-term monitoring program on the Athabasca. The effects on human and environmental health must be accurate and made public.

—David Schindler


  • Erin N. Kelly, David W. Schindler, Peter V. Hodson, Jeffrey W. Short, Roseanna Radmanovich, and Charlene C. Nielsen (2010) Oil sands development contributes elements toxic at low concentrations to the Athabasca River and its tributaries. PNAS doi: 10.1073/pnas.1008754107


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