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Queen's University

Toxic Contaminants released by Tar Sands Industries


Professor Peter Hodson of Queen's Department of Biology and School of Environmental Studies is part of a scientific team whose startling findings link pollution of Alberta's Athabasca River directly to the nearby Tar Sands operations. For more than 10 years, the industry-funded Regional Aquatic Monitoring Program (RAMP) has attributed this pollution to naturally occurring sources, encouraging Government and Industry to claim that environmental impacts of Tar Sands industries are minor.

Reporting in the December 7 edition of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), the team found alarming levels of airborne bitumen (a mixture of hydrocarbons and other substances, similar to exhaust from a diesel engine) within 50 km of two Tar Sands upgrading facilities near the Athabasca. The amount of bitumen released was equivalent to a major oil spill every year, and concentrations of polycyclic aromatic compounds (PAC) in snow, tributaries, and the main stem Athabasca are a threat to embryos of fish that spawn in spring.

"The amount of bitumen increased as you got closer to the upgrading facilities, so much so that oil slicks formed on top of melted snow," reports Dr. Hodson. For one industry, estimated emissions of airborne bitumen particulates were five times higher than estimated through a current voluntary monitoring program.

The scientists recommend that the RAMP, funded by industry and managed jointly with the Alberta Government, be critically evaluated and re-designed. They suggest it should focus on rigorous measurements of the impacts of contamination from the tar sands, and be guided by a new and independent board of experts.

"This study has shown that pollution from the Tar Sands operations has the potential to affect fish reproduction, but it was not extensive enough to show where the pollution goes after the snowmelt, or if there are implications for human health, so there are many critical and unanswered questions," says Dr. Hodson. "We've answered the first, and now it is time tackle the rest."

In addition to Professor Hodson, a fish toxicologist, the interdisciplinary research team included ecologists Erin N. Kelly, David W. Schindler, and Barbra L. Fortin ( U. Alberta), and environmental chemists Jeffrey W. Short (Oceana, Juneau, Alaska), and
Mingsheng Ma and Alvin K. Kwan (U Alberta).

The correct citation for the paper is:

Kelly, EN, Short, JW, Schindler, DW, Hodson, PV, Ma, M, Kwan, AK, Fortin, BL. 2009. Oil sands development contributes polycyclic aromatic compounds to the Athabasca River and its tributaries. Proc Nat Acad Sci Published On-line December 7, 2009:

This article is also reported Nature:

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