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Tar sands projects in Alberta are releasing high levels of pollutants into the Athabasca River and the surrounding watershed, says a new study led by University of Alberta scientists Erin Kelly and David Schindler. The study accompanies calls from Schindler for federal monitoring of the health effects of these contaminants on local species, with increasing numbers of diseased and deformed fish being caught in nearby Athabasca Lake.

The report was published in the American journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences earlier this month. It points to tar sands projects in the area as the sources of increased levels of heavy metals and other toxic compounds in the Athabasca River and in winter snowpack around mining and processing sites in the Fort McMurray region.

Speaking to Arthur over the phone, Schindler said the study was in part intended to address problems with the province’s own Regional Aquatics Monitoring Program (RAMP), which he said has been incompetent in its assessment of the tar sands industry’s impact on the local watershed.

“Industry and government have always claimed that all pollutants in the river were natural,” said Schindler. But reviews of RAMP in recent years have pointed to serious problems in its pollution assessment methods. Schindler pointed out that after the National Pollution Release Inventory became public in 2007, “it was obvious industry was putting out a lot, and that didn’t seem to mesh with the lack of detection.”

The team wanted to determine both the possible impacts of runoff from local rock formations, which contain the bitumen from which the oil in the region is extracted, and from industry sites. So water samples were taken from upstream and downstream areas exposed to the McMurray Geological Formation as well as industrial areas selected from satellite images of the Athabasca River and its surrounding watershed.

They found levels of chromium, mercury, nickel, and silver were up eight times greater downstream of sites like tailings ponds and waste-related dams than upstream, but did not increase significantly in areas with natural bitumen deposits. Snowpack samples taken both near and farther away from upgrader sites showed similar chemicals depositing in nearby snowfall. Levels of mercury, lead and other substances exceeded both Alberta Environment Surface Water Quality Guidelines and the federal Canadian Water Guidelines for the Protection of Aquatic Life.

All 13 elements on the US Environmental Protection Agency’s list of priority pollutants, toxic in even small quantities, were present in samples taken downstream of industry sites. Schindler said the team actually found more than twice that many toxic elements in the samples taken, but due to space issues, limited their published results to these 13, which all showed similar levels of deposits in the snow. Levels of mercury, lead and other substances exceeded both Alberta Environment Surface Water Quality Guidelines and the federal Canadian Water Guidelines for the Protection of Aquatic Life.

Schindler was also part of a group that, last week, called for long-term monitoring of fish health in the Athabasca watershed from the federal government. The Edmonton Journal reported that the group of scientists, health professionals, First Nations groups, and others, stated in a letter that, “fishers have noted that the incidence and frequency of unhealthy fish within their catch has increased substantially over time.”

They displayed fresh fish caught in Lake Athabasca showing massive tumors, deformed faces and jaws, and one with a tail joining a truncated body where missing vertebrae should have been. Schindler said it’s probably true that the pollutants identified in his team’s study were already present in fish in the 1970s, but that “we seem to have passed some sort of threshold.” He pointed out that finding deformed fish in such high concentrations is rare outside of cases like the Niagara River below the Love Canal and the Detroit River, both cases where past studies led by Schindler showed high levels of industrial pollutants in the water.

Although Alberta Energy Minister Ron Liepert and other government representatives initially tried to discredit the Athabasca watershed study, Premier Ed Stelmach responded two days later with a call for Schindler’s team to compare their results with the government’s own monitoring. “Some of the measurements, I couldn’t explain it to you, but let it be discussed scientist to scientist,” the premier said. “If there’s an improvement to be made, it will be made.” And Schindler also gave federal Environment Minister Jim Prentice credit for his promise last Friday to review the pollution monitoring system for the Athabasca River.

“I think they both took the high road. They’re not scientists and they didn’t just blowback,” he added. As for Premier Stelmach’s call for Schindler’s team to compare results though, he said he’s spoken with the scientists at RAMP before, and believes there’s too much political interference to allow them to do the work they’re supposed to. Instead, he’s sent the premier a list of five eminent scientists to review all of the data, from the Royal Academy of Sciences. He’s also recommended pollution monitoring in the Athabasca watershed be done by Environment Canada, which has the authority to enforce federal pollution legislation.

“The problem is not with the scientists, it’s with the muzzling,” concluded Schindler. He pointed to Environment Canada scientist Andrew Weaver, who he said had recently been dissuaded from published data on a 13,000 year-old flood because it made evidence for current climate change seem more credible. “I think the way to get around it,” he said, “is to appoint a panel to design and review the study with community members.”