David Schindler on the oil sands

by Milan on August 30, 2010

in Oil sands, Water pollution

Remember the Canadian Parliamentary report on the impact of the oil sands on water that was mysteriously not published? Perhaps the reason for that has something to do with what University of Alberta biologist David Schindler recently revealed:

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.

He also argues that the government operates an “‘absurd’ system that obfuscates or fails to discover essential data about the river.” Water pollution, air pollution, and the destruction of Boreal forest habitat are all non-climatic reasons why oil sands development is problematic, though the greenhouse gas emissions associated with the fuels being produced are almost certainly more damaging.

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{ 9 comments… read them below or add one }

. September 15, 2010 at 10:23 am

Oil sands development contributes elements toxic at low concentrations to the Athabasca River and its tributaries

1. Erin N. Kellya,
2. David W. Schindlera
3. Peter V. Hodsonb,
4. Jeffrey W. Shortc,
5. Roseanna Radmanovicha, and
6. Charlene C. Nielsena


We show that the oil sands industry releases the 13 elements considered priority pollutants (PPE) under the US Environmental Protection Agency’s Clean Water Act, via air and water, to the Athabasca River and its watershed. In the 2008 snowpack, all PPE except selenium were greater near oil sands developments than at more remote sites. Bitumen upgraders and local oil sands development were sources of airborne emissions. Concentrations of mercury, nickel, and thallium in winter and all 13 PPE in summer were greater in tributaries with watersheds more disturbed by development than in less disturbed watersheds. In the Athabasca River during summer, concentrations of all PPE were greater near developed areas than upstream of development. At sites downstream of development and within the Athabasca Delta, concentrations of all PPE except beryllium and selenium remained greater than upstream of development. Concentrations of some PPE at one location in Lake Athabasca near Fort Chipewyan were also greater than concentration in the Athabasca River upstream of development. Canada’s or Alberta’s guidelines for the protection of aquatic life were exceeded for seven PPE—cadmium, copper, lead, mercury, nickel, silver, and zinc—in melted snow and/or water collected near or downstream of development.

. September 27, 2010 at 12:06 pm

Alberta unveils plan to study oil sands’ impact on water quality
Dean Bennett

The Alberta government, facing growing concerns about the impact of oil sands operations, is bringing together scientists to try to resolve whether the industry is poisoning surrounding rivers, lakes and groundwater.

Critics dismissed Friday’s announcement by Environment Minister Rob Renner as a hollow public relations gesture by a government afraid of what powerful Hollywood director James Cameron – a staunch environmental activist – will tell the world after he visits northern Alberta next week.

Mr. Renner said a panel of up to six experts will be selected by the government and by noted ecologist David Schindler within two weeks with a mandate to report in February.

. October 1, 2010 at 4:10 pm
. October 20, 2010 at 10:48 am

David Schindler
Five decades of doing science, advocating environmental policy
Last Updated: Monday, October 18, 2010 | 1:30 AM ET
By Daniel Schwartz, CBC News

Alberta and the federal government have both appointed panels of scientists to review the controversial findings from David Schindler’s latest research about water pollution caused by oilsands development.

That is an extraordinary response for a science paper, even one published in a prestigious and peer-reviewed journal like the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Schindler and his team of researchers from the University of Alberta and elsewhere found that oilsands development is contaminating the Athabasca River watershed, by both airborne and waterborne pathways. The scientists found that seven “priority pollutants” were at levels that exceed government guidelines for the protection of aquatic life.

The oilsands industry and the Alberta government have long argued that the naturally occurring bitumen is the source and claim the levels are too low to be a concern.

For Alberta Energy Minister Ron Liepert, the problem is Schindler.

“If you look back at the work that he has done in the past, I’m not surprised that this was the result,” he told reporters.

Let’s take Liepert’s advice and look back. Schindler’s list of accomplishments in science is a long one.

. November 15, 2010 at 1:52 pm

A northern Alberta tailings pond appears to have toxic sludge flowing into the muskeg from an uncontained western edge, a situation uncovered by a CBC News investigation.

The pond, located in a remote area about 70 kilometres northwest of Fort McMurray, contains toxic waste from the Horizon oilsands project operated by Calgary-based Canadian Natural Resources Ltd. (CNRL). It has been in operation for about a year.

The pond has containing berms on all but its western side. According to documents obtained by CBC News, the company is relying on topography and clay beneath the surface to contain the tailings on that section of the pond.

CNRL is legally permitted to have this setup. The plan was approved six years ago by Alberta’s Energy Resources Conservation Board (ERCB).

. November 15, 2010 at 1:53 pm

CBC News shot video of the tailings pond and screened it for the world-renowned water expert and ecologist from the University of Alberta, David Schindler.

“This is such a big area,” Schindler said as he watched the video. “Some of those chemicals have to be seeping into groundwater and Environment Canada should step in.”

Some scientists believe that using the land to contain tailings might be better at keeping toxins out of the water than dikes, which are usually made of sand.

The land beneath the forest floor is made of clay, which is believed to be a natural sealant. But Schindler says clay isn’t completely reliable and engineering tests often don’t account for holes created by tree roots or burrowing rodents.

“I’d be concerned that there might be some tree root holes that, after the trees die and the roots decay, that there are channels that material could follow either into groundwater or into other surface waters that are lower elevation,” he said.

Orr hopes the federal government moves quickly to make sure toxins aren’t contaminating the area’s food and water.

For his part, Schindler expressed disbelief that regulators would approve this type of tailings pond.

“[I] wonder if the people who approved this have ever gone back for a look,” he said.

. February 3, 2011 at 9:49 pm

Water expert quits Alberta oilsands panel

A member of the recently appointed government panel that is supposed to design a credible way to monitor the environmental effects of Alberta’s oilsands has quit.

The panel’s members were announced five days ago and are to meet for the first time next week.

Helen Ingram, a water expert from the University of California Irvine, sent a letter to the group Tuesday expressing concerns about the lack of aboriginal representatives and how the panel would work.

“I am withdrawing from the provincial environmental monitoring panel at this time due to an accumulation of concerns that have made me increasingly uncomfortable,” Ingram writes.

“I am disappointed that there are so few scientists … on the panel,” said Ingram, who has served on other panels and water policy workshops.

“I know how important to credibility it is to have a balance of disciplines on complex water issues.”

Ingram says she is also worried that confidentiality rules would prevent her from having the freedom to consult other experts in the field.

“I very much regret my need to withdraw. The task of this panel is of enormous importance because its performance is critical to the future ecology, not just of Alberta, but the entire planet.”

Bill McConnell July 3, 2011 at 3:57 am

The government of canada should be looking after our country and our people. We only learn of environmental damage when people like David Schindler can get private financing to do the research. The government looks after the oil companies instead.

. January 8, 2013 at 9:29 pm

Alberta lakes show chemical effects of oilsands, study finds

Pollutants from 50 years of oilsands production found in lake 90 km from facilities

By Margo McDiarmid, Environment Unit, CBC News
Posted: Jan 7, 2013 3:14 PM ET
Last Updated: Jan 7, 2013 4:54 PM ET

A new study released today suggests chemicals from 50 years of oilsands production are showing up in increasing amounts in lakes in northern Alberta. And the effects are being felt much farther away than previously thought.

The joint study between scientists at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ont., and Environment Canada looked at core samples from five lakes close to the oilsands mining and upgrading operations in Fort McMurray, Alta. They also studied samples from Namur Lake, 90 kilometres northwest.

The authors focused on polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, or PAHs. These are cancer-causing chemicals that are released when things are burned. They can occur naturally — from forest fires, volcanic activity and geological deposits — but burning petroleum in the production of the oilsands leaves a particular fingerprint, so the scientists were able to trace where the PAHs in the core samples came from.

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