New study links tar sands to pollution of Athabasca River
Queen's University Environmental Studies and Biology Professor Peter Hodson is part of a scientific team whose startling findings directly link pollution of Alberta's Athabasca River to the nearby tar sands operations. For more than a decade, industry/government monitoring programs have attributed this pollution to naturally-occurring sources.
The study, headed by biologists Erin Kelly and David Schindler from the University of Alberta, is published online in the international Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
"Industry studies and monitoring have grossly under-reported the extent of the pollution problem in the Athabasca for many years," says Dr. Hodson. "Our findings show 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."
In one case, the airborne emissions were five times higher than estimated through the current voluntary monitoring system.
The research team recommends that monitoring of emissions be critically evaluated and redesigned. The scientists also call on Alberta to focus on rigorous measuring of the impacts of contamination from the tar sands, guided by an independent board of experts.
"This study has shown that pollution from the tar sands operations has the potential to affect fish reproduction," continues Dr. Hodson. "Further studies will be required to determine where the pollution goes after the snowmelt, or if there are implications for human health."
Other members of the interdisciplinary research team include: Erin Kelly, Mingsheng Ma, Alvin Kwan and Barbra Fortin from the University of Alberta and Jeffrey Short from the Alaska environmental consortium, Oceana.