Studies find Alberta oil sands development not a major source of long-distance air and water pollution

Oct 03, 2012

(Phys.org)—Oil sands development in northern Alberta isn’t polluting the nearby Peace-Athabasca Delta via the air and water to the extent many may believe, two recently published University of Waterloo research studies have found.

The research revealed that Alberta emissions haven’t increased the amount of metal and organic contaminants travelling via the atmosphere to the delta, located 200 km north of the oil sands industry. And it determined that oil sands mining activity hasn’t measurably increased the delivery of organic contaminants to shallow delta lakes via the .

The findings by researchers at the University of Waterloo and Wilfrid Laurier University counter the belief that , wildlife, and ecosystems are suffering as a result of long-distance transport of contaminants from the oil sands development.

“This evidence is essential in guiding responsible development of the oil sands while recognizing its true impact and benefits,” says Terry McMahon, dean of science. “It demonstrates the value that comprehensive research and the generation of knowledge can have on future decisions that affect our health, economy, and environment.”

One of the studies, “"Has Alberta oil sands development altered delivery of polycyclic aromatic compounds to the Peace-Athabasca Delta?"” published on September 26 in , discovered the amount of organic contaminants that the Athabasca River carried to the downstream delta hasn’t increased above pre-development levels in sediments of a flood-prone lake.

Earlier in September, the study "“Has Alberta oil sands development increased far-field delivery of airborne contaminants to the Peace-Athabasca Delta?"”examining the transport of metal contaminants from the oil sands by air was published in Science of the Total Environment. It shows that key metals of concern including lead, antimony, arsenic, and mercury declined during the period when Alberta oil sands production was increasing dramatically. For these studies, researchers used lake sediment records spanning the past 200 years to provide critical knowledge of baseline, pre-development levels of metal and organic contaminant deposition, and to measure changes over time since the onset of oil sands development.

“The results of this study are significant in providing the knowledge needed for meaningful debates about the environmental exposure and effects of oil production at the world’s second-largest proven reserve,” says Roland Hall, principal investigator on the study and professor in the Department of Biology. “Indeed, our data show that toxic metals like arsenic and lead travelling via the atmosphere have declined dramatically in recent decades despite the growth of Alberta’s oil sands industry. And, we were unable to detect an increase in transported by the Athabasca River above natural levels delivered by floodwaters.”

The study may provide a foundation to map the footprint of emissions travelling via the air and water from oil sands operations over space and time, which could be a valuable contribution to Environment Canada’s new oil sands monitoring program.

Explore further: New policymaking tool for shift to renewable energy

add to favorites email to friend print save as pdf

Related Stories

Canada threatens trade war with EU over oil sands

Feb 21, 2012

Canada has threatened to lodge a World Trade Organization complaint against the European Union if the bloc labels oil from Alberta's tar sands as highly polluting, documents published Monday show.

Oil sands pollution comparable to a large power plant

Feb 22, 2012

It takes a lot of energy to extract heavy, viscous and valuable bitumen from Canada's oil sands and refine it into crude oil. Companies mine some of the sands with multi-story excavators, separate out the bitumen, and process ...

Caution needed with new greenhouse gas emission standards

Jul 13, 2012

Policy makers need to be cautious in setting new 'low-carbon' standards for greenhouse gas emissions for oil sands-derived fuels as well as fuels from conventional crude oils University of Calgary and University of Toronto ...

Recommended for you

EU leaders seek last-minute climate deal

3 hours ago

European Union leaders came under pressure Thursday to strike a deal aimed at bolstering Brussels as a trailblazer in fighting global climate change as negotiations went down to the wire.

Research team studies 'regime shifts' in ecosystems

5 hours ago

The prehistory of major ecological shifts spanning multiple millennia can be read in the fine print of microscopic algae, according to a new study led by researchers at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.

User comments : 1

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

cyberclark
not rated yet Oct 04, 2012
I sailed, the canoed the Athabasca River and Lake for a number of years while employed by N.T.C.L.

The lake has long been known to be contaminated with forms of radioactivity though to be there long before the mines were worked at the head of the lake.

When the first plants went in it was not uncommon to flush the affluent at midnight, into the river to clear the ponds. (20 years or so ago)The lab was in charge of the operation and when they were blown the company collected the log books which diapered.

That was really the dark ages of exploration. Things seem to be much better now. It has to be with the advance of monitoring devices and the unrelenting scrutiny of the press.