Skip to content

NEWS: Study says tar sands releases 13 toxic pollutants into the Athabasca River

The Globe and Mail reports today that, “A study set to be published on Monday has found elevated levels of mercury, lead and eleven other toxic elements in the oil sands’ main fresh water source, the Athabasca River, refuting long-standing government and industry claims that water quality there hasn’t been affected by oil sands development.”

“The author of the study, University of Alberta biological scientist David Schindler, criticized the province and industry for an ‘absurd’ system that obfuscates or fails to discover essential data about the river. …The industry-led Regional Aquatics Monitoring Program (RAMP) oversees water quality in the river.”

“The study, to be published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, found the oil industry ‘releases’ all 13 of the United States’ Environmental Protection Agency’s so-called priority pollutants, including mercury and lead, into the Athabasca at concentrations that are higher near industry during the summer. In winter, before a melt, only levels of mercury, nickel and thallium were elevated near industry. Overall levels of seven elements – mercury, lead, cadmium, copper, nickel, silver and zinc – exceed those recommended by Alberta or Canada for the protection of aquatic life, it said, concluding the ‘oil sands industry substantially increases loadings’ of toxins into the river.”


National Geographic magazine reported in February 2009 that, “In the oldest and most notorious (tailings pond), Suncor’s Pond 1, the sludge is perched high above the river held back by a dike of compacted sand that rises more than 300 feet from the valley floor and is studded with pine trees. The dike has leaked in the past, and in 2007 a modeling study done by hydrogeologists at the University of Waterloo estimated that 45,000 gallons a day of contaminated water could be reaching the river.”

National Geographic also reported that, “The Alberta government asserts that the river is not being contaminated – that anything found in the river or its delta, at Lake Athabasca, comes from natural bitumen seeps…(But) an Environment Canada study did in fact show an effect on fish in the Steepbank River, which flows past a Suncor mine into the Athabasca. Fish near the mine…showed five times more activity of a liver enzyme that breaks down toxins – a widely used measure of exposure to pollutants – as did fish near a natural bitumen seep on the Steepbank.”

The Canadian Press reported in December 2009 that, “In the summer of 2008, (David) Schindler’s team set up monitoring stations on the Athabasca (River) and several of its tributaries. Some stations were upstream of both the oilsands and facilities, others were in the middle of the deposits but upstream of industry and still others were downstream of both. It found petrochemical concentrations did not increase until the streams flowed past oilsands facilities, especially when they flowed past new construction. ‘We found rather massive inputs of toxic organic compounds by the oilsands industry to the Athabasca River and its tributaries,’ said David Schindler, a co-author of the study. ‘The major contribution to the river was from industry.’”

The Edmonton Journal reported earlier this month that, “The Liberals have drawn their own conclusions about the testimony (at the House of Commons enviromental committee). They say there is ample evidence that oilsands development is negatively affecting the Athabasca River watershed, despite the oft-repeated views of both industry and governments that any perceived contamination of the river comes from natural sources.”

The full Globe and Mail article is at http://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/national/prairies/elevated-levels-of-toxins-found-in-athabasca-river/article1689578/.

The Council of Canadians is calling for a transition to a tar sands-free future and the promotion of green energy to stop the harm to downstream communities, the increasing destruction of water, growing greenhouse gas emissions, and other threats to our ecological sustainability.