A new study from Queen’s University has struck a significant victory in the war against emissions from the Alberta Oil Sands. The study, released in early January, investigated levels of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) in sediments from six lakes located near large mining operations. PAHs are known carcinogens and have been linked to abnormal development in children and immune disorders in adults. The study found that PAH levels had risen in the lakes in question concurrently with Oil Sands development.
The present levels of PAHs in the lakes are not of particular concern–most of the chemicals tested fall within accepted water quality standards. The importance of the victory, however, stems from the clear correlation between increasing contaminants and industrial development. Although previous studies from a variety of sources, including the University of Alberta, have found high levels of contaminants such as bitumen, mercury, metals, and PAHs in the Athabasca River downstream of Oil Sands operations and in nearby lakes, this is the first study that compares present levels to pre-development background concentrations.
Trends like the PAH increase as found by the Queen’s study would be easy to find if adequate monitoring systems were in place. Unfortunately, the provincial government has largely neglected its duty to undertake, fund, or enforce such testing, despite the fact that it is required according to provincial environmental and health regulations. The Regional Aquatics Monitoring Program (RAMP), an industry-funded group composed primarily of industry and government stakeholders, has undertaken much of this responsibility in the past and has repeatedly reported that no contamination exists, despite claims to the contrary from academic studies and non-governmental organizations. A review in 2004 found that RAMP’s sampling program has been inconsistent and poorly managed, with a lack of easy accessibility and quality control of data. Even so, an independent review of RAMP’s data came to the clear conclusion that levels of mercury and PAHs in the Athabasca River had increased.
This lack of consistent monitoring has allowed industry and government to repeatedly dismiss elevated levels of contaminants as natural, even with dramatic claims of elevated rates of rare cancers in Ft. Chipewyan, a native community situated downstream of Oil Sands operations. With the release of the Queen’s PAH study, this argument no longer holds solid ground. In the past year, the provincial and national governments have begun to cooperate on the implementation of a new environmental monitoring program, which would be a valuable first step in monitoring and managing Oil Sands emissions. The true hurdle at present, however, is one of accountability, with government and industry needing to accept the likelihood that mining operations pose an environmental hazard, which must be responsibly managed before further development can take place.
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