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Federal Study Reignites Pollution Concern in Expanding Tar Sands Region

Dr. David Schindler, the scientist who sounded the alarm on tar sands contamination back in 2010, has suddenly found his research backed by an Environment Canada study recently published in the prestigious journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. The federal study, which confirmed Schindler’s hotly-contested research, has reignited concerns over the pace and scale of development in the Athabasca region, an area now beset with a host of ecological and human health concerns. 

Environment Canada scientists Jane Kirk, David Muir and Joanne Parrott confirmed Schindler’s conclusion that hydrocarbon-derived contaminants, known as polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), have polluted the landscape surrounding tar sands operations. The new study found high concentrations of PAHs in areas more than 100 kilometers away from Fort McMurray, an area dominated with open-pit mines and bitumen refineries. 
 
In early 2012 DeSmog traveled to Fort McMurray with photographer Kris Krug. This image, taken of refineries that border the area's open pit mines, shows only a fraction of the impact industrial development has had on the surrounding landscape. 
 
The new study draws upon Schindler’s discovery that snowfall plays a pivotal role in the transport of PAHs and other toxins throughout the landscape and into waterways. Laboratory testing showed snow melt from the area is fatal to young minnows.
 
Dr. Schindler told DeSmog that what the research really demonstrates is the extent to which industry and government have failed to monitor – and mitigate – the negative environmental affects of tar sands development.
 
“Both background studies and environmental impact assessments have been shoddy, and could not really even be called science,” he said. “This must change.”
 
If there is a hint of frustration in Schindler’s candid remarks on the topic, it isn’t without warrant. In 2010, after the release of his original research on tar sands pollution, the Alberta government accused him of scientific bias, calling the legitimacy of his research and his professional credibility into question. The provincial government at the time stood firmly by the line that any present contamination in the watershed was naturally occurring.
 
When asked if management of the tar sands has been based on sound science, Schindler’s answer is definitive: “No.” Both industry and government, he says, have failed to monitor the environmental impact of bitumen mining and production. 
 
“Monitoring studies by RAMP [Regional Aquatics Monitoring Program] and Alberta Environment have been poorly done, according to recent panel reports.” 
 
“The studies that have been done have been very poor, using poor statistical design, inadequate sampling, and chemical methods with poor limits of detection.” 
 
Because of this, says Schindler, local wildlife is suffering. “Caribou are in decline, and probably not recoverable. Many predatory mammals and boreal song birds are also in decline.” 
 
Numerous reports of deformed fish in waterways downstream of tar sands operations, most notably in Fort Chipewyan, may also be related, says Schindler.
 
“Earlier studies by Environment Canada and Queen’s University scientists showed that fish eggs hatched on bitumen contaminated sediments had high mortalities, and that the few survivors had malformations, which were described as like those observed in adult fish caught near Fort Chipewyan.
 
“When contaminated snow melts and runs off, it is toxic. I think a connection is very probable.”
 
Schindler says similar malformations have occurred downstream of other polluted areas in the Great Lakes Basin and known Superfund sites. 
 
Fort Chipewyan also suffers from elevated rates of cancer. Schindler says the link between the poor health of local communities and oil production is impossible to make “without considerable further study.” He adds: “The most likely carcinogens are some of the poorly studied polycyclic aromatic compounds.”
 
The need for health studies in the region is crucial, according to Schindler, and also long-overdue.
 
“A health study of Fort Chipewyan was recommended in the final report of the Northern River Basins study in 1996, and it has still not been done.”
 
Photos used with permisson of Kris Krug.

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We hear it time and time again:
“These are the stories that need to be told and you are some of the only ones telling them,” John, a new member of The Narwhal, wrote in to say.

Investigating stories others aren’t. Diving deep to find solutions to the climate crisis. Sending journalists to report from remote locations for days and sometimes weeks on end. These are the core tenets of what we do here at The Narwhal. It’s also the kind of work that takes time and resources to pull off.

That might sound obvious, but it’s far from reality in many shrinking and cash-strapped Canadian newsrooms. So what’s The Narwhal’s secret sauce? Thousands of members like John who support our non-profit, ad-free journalism by giving whatever they can afford each month (or year).

But here’s the thing: just two per cent of The Narwhal’s readers step up to keep our stories free for all to read. Will you join the two per cent and become a member of The Narwhal today?

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