Dr. David Schindler, the scientist who sounded the alarm on tar sands contamination back in 2010, has suddenly found his research backed by an Environment Canada study recently published in the prestigious journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. The federal study, which confirmed Schindler’s hotly-contested research, has reignited concerns over the pace and scale of development in the Athabasca region, an area now beset with a host of ecological and human health concerns.
If you ask an Environment Canada media spokesperson about contamination resulting from tar sands operations, they will not tell you the federal government has failed to adequately monitor the mega-project's effects on water.
They most certainly will not say outright that the federal government has failed to monitor the long term or cumulative environmental effects of the world's largest industrial project. They won't say it, but not because it isn't the case.
The tar sands are contaminating hundreds of kilometres of land in northern Alberta with cancer-causing contaminants and neurotoxins.
And although federal scientists have confirmed this, they are prevented from sharing information about their research with the media.
The result is an overly-monitored process that causes burdensome delays in media-scientist interactions. The overwhelming consequence is that the media has stopped talking to the country's national scientists.
Today federal scientists from Environment Canada presented research at an international toxicology conference in the U.S. that indicates contaminants from the Alberta tar sands are polluting the landscape on a scale much larger than previously thought.
A team lead by federal scientist Jane Kirk discovered contaminants in lakes as far as 100 kilometers away from tar sands operations. The federal research confirms and expands upon the hotly contested findings of aquatic scientist David Schindler who, in 2010, found pollution from the tar sands accumulating on the landscape up to 50 kilometers away.
“That means the footprint is four times bigger than we found,” Schindler told Postmedia News.
Senior scientist Derek Muir, who presented some of the findings at Wednesday's conference, said the contaminated region is “potentially larger than we might have anticipated.” The 'legacy' of chemicals in lake sediment gives evidence that tar sands pollution has been traveling long distances for decades. Samples show the build up of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, or PAHs, known to cause cancer in humans and to be toxic to aquatic animals, in 6 remote and undisturbed lakes up to 100 kilometers away from tar sands operations.
The pollutants are “petrogenic” in nature, meaning they are petroleum derived, and have steadily and dramatically increased since the 1970s, showing the contaminant levels “seem to parallel the development of the oilsands industry,” Muir said.
The Canadian government is working hard behind the scenes to cover up the negative effects that tar sands extraction is having on the local environment, wildlife, communities and the global climate. According to Access to Information documents obtained by Postmedia's Mike De Souza, the Stephen Harper government has actively suppressed the release of vital information regarding the spread of tar sands contamination by muzzling federal scientists.
The gag order, according to De Souza, came on the heels of a newly researched government report in November 2011 which confirmed the findings of University of Alberta scientists Erin N. Kelly and David Schindler. The scientists discovered concentrations of toxics such as heavy metals were higher near tar sands operations, showing a positive correlation between tar sands activity and the spread of contaminants in the local environment.
The government of Canada and the government of Alberta denied the correlation, saying local waterways tested showed no signs of toxic contamination and reports of mutated and cancerous fish downstream from the tar sands were unfounded.
This week, the Cumulative Environmental Management Association (CEMA), an industry-funded consultancy group in Alberta, released the End Pit Lakes Guidance Document to the Government of Alberta for review. The 434-page document outlines a 100-year plan to integrate open-pit mines and tar sands tailings into Northern Alberta's local ecosystem, introducing what they call a 'reclaimed lake district' as a long-term alternative to the temporary tailings ponds that currently hold the billions of gallons of water, sand, clay, hydrocarbons, naphthenic acids, salt and other byproducts of the bitumen extraction and upgrading process.
A report released by the Water Monitoring Data Review Committee earlier this month refuted previous Alberta Environment and industry studies on the serious threat of water contamination stemming from tar sands operations.
Environment Minister Rob Renner responded by promising to work to create a “better, more transparent and credible monitoring system in Alberta” that would assess the impacts of tar sands development on the Athabasca watershed. Renner’s tune has changed since declaring that heavy metals and other pollutants were naturally-occurring in the river, a view supported by the industry-funded Regional Aquatics Monitoring Program (RAMP) study.
75 groups from across Canada, the U.S. and Europe have signed a petition calling on the federal and Alberta governments to immediately phase out existing tailings lakes and deny any proposed project that would create new tailings lakes. Greenpeace issued the call-out last week, and 45 groups across Canada, including 23 Alberta-based groups, six U.S. groups, and one group from Europe have signed on to support a moratorium on destructive tar sands practices. To date, there have been over 600 signatories to the petition.
Greenpeace’s petition comes as European members of Parliament (MEPs) wrapped up their tour of the Alberta tar sands late last week. European members of Parliament were visiting to weigh in on the controversial dirty crude and were to report back on their findings regarding fuel legislation that could inhibit or impact the use of tar sands products. At stake is possible legislation and restriction on the importation of the dirty crude, or the labeling of it as “dirty” or “high carbon”.