There appear to be “remarkable similarities” between fish deformities found downstream from Alberta’s oilsands and those observed after the Exxon Valdez oil spill in Alaska and after Florida’s Deepwater Horizon disaster, says a renowned ecologist.
David Schindler of the University of Alberta has written an open letter to two federal cabinet ministers pointing out the recent research findings from scientists as far afield as the Gulf of Mexico.
“Given the parallels in the cases from various locations, it seems likely that some chemical or suite of chemicals in crude oil is causing the malformations,” Schindler wrote.
He’s proposing that Canada take the lead in researching the issue by isolating the various chemical compounds and introducing them to fish stocks in a controlled setting.
And Schindler says the federal Experimental Lakes Area – which has been shut down by Ottawa for a savings of about $2 million annually – is the ideal natural laboratory for the work.
In a letter Wednesday to Fisheries Minister Keith Ash-field and Environment Minister Peter Kent – copied to a number of U.S. scientists and some news media – Schindler praised the monitoring work of government scientists in the Athabasca River.
But he said such monitoring can’t possibly determine which chemicals may be affecting aquatic life due to the “complex chemical soup” found downstream from industrial oilsands development.
What’s required, the scientist said, “would be whole ecosystem experiments where small amounts of selected chemicals are applied to whole lakes, and the effects determined on several key species in the food chain.”
It’s tailor-made for the federal Experimental Lakes Area in northwestern Ontario, a remote region of 58 pristine lakes that have been used since 1968 for groundbreaking freshwater studies on everything from nutrient-loading and mercury exposure to acid rain.
The Harper government announced last year it was closing the world-renowned facility as a cost-saving measure – although insiders say the operating cost of the facility is only $600,000 annually, of which a third comes back in user fees.
Fully funded independent researchers have been refused access to the site to continue their research this summer, although Ottawa is in negotiations with the province of Ontario and other parties to transfer management.
Linking the closure of the Experimental Lakes Area – a cause celebre among Canada’s scientific research community and environmentalists – with oilsands pollution is a potentially toxic political mix for the government.
Activists have already claimed climate-change research at the ELA is the real reason the Conservatives closed the facility.
A spokeswoman for Ashfield did not directly address Schindler’s proposal when reached for comment, but said in an email “the government continues to actively work toward establishing a new operator for the ELA site so that research there can continue.”
Erin Filliter added that “freshwater science continues to be conducted across Canada at multiple facilities which more than adequately meets the needs of government research.”
Similarly, Rob Taylor at Environment Canada said by email that “Minister Kent is very engaged in the environmental monitoring of the oilsands region.” “The Canada-Alberta joint scientific monitoring program has been put in place to study any impact on air quality, water quality and biodiversity,” said Taylor.
Chief Theresa Spence is entering what is hopefully her last week of a hunger strike.
The Attawapiskat First Nation Chief has been on a hunger strike since 11 December trying to force Harper into talks with aboriginal leaders.
She vowed not to eat solid food until she gets a meeting with Harper to discuss his controversial Bill C-45, which was approved by the Canadian Parliament in December. For more info see here.
One of the issues Spence and Harper will talk about is tar sands, and how its development is impacting indigenous communities.
Her hand will be strengthened by the latest disturbing scientific research, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, that shows that cancer-causing pollutants are linked to the tar sands.
There has been evidence stacking up for a while that the tar sands are leaving a lethal legacy. And yesterday’s peer-reviewed study adds to the growing evidence of harm.
What makes this interesting is that the scientists include those from Environment Canada. It is going to be hard for the Canadian government to dismiss the evidence from its own scientists.
The scientists analysed sediment dating back about 50 years from six small lakes north of Fort McMurray, the center of the toxic tar sands industry. The scientists were looking for deposits of cancer-causing polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, or PAHs.
And what they found disturbed them. They found levels of PAHs have risen roughly at the same pace as the tar sands development. Results from one remote lake showed PAH levels 23 times higher than pre-development levels 50 years ago.
They also concluded that the contamination covered a wider area than had previously been believed.
This is worrying as PAHs are cancer-causing chemicals. The American Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry says it is well “established” that PAHs are carcinogenic, and have been linked to infertility, immune disorders and fish mutation.
“The signature of the PAHs and the timing strongly suggest that development and the refining of the oil sands plays a role in PAHs increasing in these lakes,” argues Joshua Kurek, from Queen’s University in Kingston, Canada, and lead author of the study.
“Now we have the smoking gun,” argues co-author Professor Smol, another Queen’s University professor, who argues that it is the rate of growth that’s most alarming. “You only have to start doing some back-of-the-envelope calculations of, in 15 years, where they might be,” he said. “But it’s going to get worse. It’s not too late but the trend is not looking good.”
The study is another rebuttal to the oil industry line that oil contamination is from natural oil seeps.
“Hopefully, this will kill the all-the-pollutants-are-natural theory once and for all,” David Schindler, a University of Alberta biologist who co-authored a 2010 study that revealed pollution in the Athabasca River near the tar sands told the Globe and Mail. “I think it’s pretty convincing evidence.”
In response Alberta’s Ministry of Environment and Sustainable Resource Development conceded that “Overall, we do know there is an impact from industry”.
The question that Spence needs to ask Harper is how much toxic local pollution is he going to allow, and how much CO2 pumped into the atmosphere, before he realises that the tar sands legacy is just too great.