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Elizabeth Shope’s Blog

Study provides damning evidence that tar sands development causing carcinogenic pollution in Alberta

Elizabeth Shope

Posted January 8, 2013

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A study published yesterday in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) provides damning evidence that tar sands development has been causing carcinogenic pollution in Alberta – not just in the immediate development region but even as far as 50 miles away. Today’s print edition of the New York Times features an article on the study entitled Oil Sands Industry in Canada Tied to Higher Carcinogen Level

As lead study author and Queen’s University Professor John Smol said to the New York Times, “Now we have the smoking gun.” The study published yesterday takes it a step farther than previous studies, showing a rise in polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbon (PAH) deposits after the industrial development of the tar sands. Put another way, [from the Tyee]

The study conclusively shows that bitumen pollution "is not natural, is increasing over time and the footprint of the industry is much bigger than anyone thought," says John Smol, one of Canada's leading freshwater ecologists, a Queen's University professor and a contributor to the study.

To study the PAH levels, Smol and his team used “highly resolved lake sediment records to provide ecological context to ~50 y of oil sands development and other environmental changes affecting lake ecosystems in the region.” Now despite the lack of environmental monitoring that has happened in the tar sands, there is major evidence that the tar sands have been causing carcinogenic pollution.

In Andrew Nikiforuk's The Tyee article on the study, Dr. David Schindler – not one of the authors of this study but the lead author of several other major studies about tar sands pollution – says that the findings of this study should “deep six once and for all the bullshit that all pollution from the tar sands is natural.” Dr. Schindler goes on to say about the study:

It shows that as production rises, so does the pollution fallout from the project. It also implies that we need some means of controlling these stack emissions. It also reinforces the now well-documented fact that past monitoring has been substandard. This sort of contamination should have been easily detected a decade or more ago.

Dr. Schindler’s previous studies have also indicated that the tar sands are causing pollution, but have been criticized by some for not having baseline data – a challenge when the Governments of Alberta and Canada have essentially not bothered to monitor these massive developments. Schindler et al.’s 2009 study showed a much greater concentration of dissolved polycyclic aromatic compounds downstream than upstream. And in 2010, PNAS published another study by Schindler et al. showing that thirteen “priority pollutants” were found in greater quantities downstream from tar sands developments than from similar areas containing tar sands deposits that were less disturbed by development. These studies both provided evidence that tar sands is causing pollution that causes health risks to humans and wildlife.

The latest study makes this even harder to refute. The study concludes:

We conclude that lake sediments in the Athabasca oil sands region register a clear PAH legacy with the pace and scale of industrial development of the region’s tremendous bitumen deposits.

With the results of this study out, it’s more important than ever for the governments of Alberta and Canada to get to the root of the cancer issue in Fort Chipewyan. My former colleague Gina Solomon visited Ft. Chip – a small fly-in community about 150 miles downstream from the tar sands, which is home to the Mikisew Cree First Nation and the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation – and wrote about a study published by Alberta Health Services about cancer in Ft. Chip. The study found a 30% increase in cancers in Ft. Chip compared with expected, and a 7-fold increase in bile duct cancers – which have been linked to petroleum and to PAHs – the pollutants that this new study shows have increased as far as 50 miles downstream.  

Tar sands production is creating a mess in Alberta, but it’s not just Albertans who should be concerned. If President Obama approves the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline, the U.S. will be further aiding this pollution. The draft environmental review for the “northern segment” of the Keystone XL pipeline is expected any day, and should include information about the upstream impacts of tar sands extraction – not just the greenhouse gas emissions but also these carcinogenic and other disease-causing pollutants being caused  by the rapid expansion of this extra dirty fuel.  

Whitefish from Lake Athabasca, collected by Ray Ladouceur, December 2009. Photo credit Kelly Radmanovich.jpgWhitefish from Lake Athabasca, collected by Ray Ladouceur, December 2009. Photo credit: Kelly Radmanovich. Many fish in the region have been found with abnormal tumors and lesions.

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FRED WASHBURNJan 8 2013 06:38 PM

harper should be held accountable for this

Mel KytwayhatJan 14 2013 01:23 PM

I actually used to see these fish and wondered why they looked like this? Used to work for Syncrude and the pumphouses by the river were part of my rounds.. It is very sad for the people, the environment and the wildlife that are being slowly killed off by this place and they have been doing it this way for over 30 years, extremely dirty, poisonous, hazardous and they definitely give false #'s, %'s on the actual pollution to the world.

Tim MarshallJan 16 2013 09:06 PM

As the article correctly points out this latest study confirms the work of Dr. Schindler. The levels found in the study are not toxic, much to the chagrin of the NRDC. They are actually comparable to PAH concentrations found in urban areas. More troubling is the attitude of CAPP they seem to feel this says they have time to study. In fact they need to get the process going now. The sooner the industry starts to try and eliminate contaminates the sooner the impacts can be lessened. Unless free energy miraculously gets figured out.

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