Queen’s University study finds evidence of increased contaminants and changes in Athabasca tar sands lake ecosystems

“Worrying”, says Queen’s biology professor John Smol

No 649 Posted by fw, January 10, 2013

“Fifty years of Athabasca oil sands development has left a legacy of contaminants in lake ecosystems and that contamination reaches further from the development areas than previously recognized, according to new research at Queen’s University.”Queen’s University News Centre

To read the full 6-page scientific report by Queen’s, click on this link provided by thetyee.ca: Legacy of a half century of Athabasca oil sands development recorded by lake ecosystems, Joshua Kurek et al. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, January 7, 2013

Oil sands study shows negative impact on lake systems, Queens News Centre, January 1, 2013

Fifty years of Athabasca oil sands development has left a legacy of contaminants in lake ecosystems and that contamination reaches further from the development areas than previously recognized, according to new research at Queen’s University.

“Our research tells a consistent story of increased contaminants and ecological change that has occurred in the region since industrial development of bitumen resources began,” says lead author Joshua Kurek, a postdoctoral fellow at Queen’s University, Department of Biology. “Today our study lakes are very different compared to 50 years ago, and are on a path of unprecedented change.”

The study illustrates that multiple environmental stressors, including local industrial activities and climate change, have affected the structure and function of Athabasca oil sands lake ecosystems for nearly half a century.

It reveals toxic substances that are also prominent components of Athabasca oil sands bitumen, have increased in lake sediments since oil sands development began in the late 1960s. Additionally, increased contaminant levels were observed from one lake ecosystem 90 kilometres northwest of the major development area.

Researchers used the archives preserved in lake sediments to reconstruct past contaminant levels and ecological changes, since there is no direct monitoring data prior to the oil sands development. They found increasing amounts of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAH)* and dibenzothiophenes (DBT), both toxins released through oil sands processing and mining operations.

“Given that oil sands development will undoubtedly increase, we are certain that these trends will accelerate, and increased development will likely impact ecosystems farther from the current pollution sources,” notes Queen’s biology professor John Smol, Canada Research Chair in Environmental Change. “Combined with the effects of climate change and other environmental stressors to aquatic ecosystems, these results are worrying.”

This study was published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America. Other members of the research team include Research and Physical Scientists from Environment Canada’s Aquatic Contaminants Research Division: Jane Kirk, Derek Muir, Xiaowa Wang and Marlene Evans.

Funding for the research was provided by Environment Canada and the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada.

[*PAHs occur in oil, coal, and tar deposits, and are produced as by-products of fuel burning (whether fossil fuel or biomass). As a pollutant, they are of concern because some compounds have been identified as carcinogenic (cancer-causing agent), mutagenic (physical or chemical agent that changes genetic material of an organism), and teratogenic (abnormalities of physiological development, particularly birth defects in humans and non-human life forms)].

SEE ALSO

  • Alberta lakes show chemical effects of oilsands, study finds by Margo McDiarmid, Environment Unit, CBC News — The effect of the oilsands on the environment is highly controversial. There was little monitoring of the air and water in the region before the production started and there is a polarized debate about what is considered “natural” occurrence of petroleum deposits in lakes and rivers. But other studies have suggested problems. A study in 2010 by University of Alberta scientist David Schindler discovered deformed fish in Lake Athabasca downstream from the oilsands. It caused a huge public outcry and eventually led to a federal-provincial environmental monitoring plan for the Alberta oilsands announced last February. The CBC’s website includes an audio recording of John Smol on the oilsands study.
  • Does the Alberta Tar Sands Industry Pollute? The Scientific Evidence by Kevin P. Timoney and Peter Lee, The Open Conservation Biology Journal, 2009, 3, 65-81 — The extent to which pollution from tar sands industrial activities in northeastern Alberta, Canada affects ecosystem and human health is a matter of growing concern that is exacerbated by uncertainty. In this paper we determine whether physical and ecological changes that result from tar sands industrial activities are detectable. Increases in contaminants in water, sediment, and fishes downstream of industrial sources; significant air emissions and major pollution incidents; and the loss of 65,040 ha of boreal ecosystems are documented. Present levels of some contaminants pose an ecosystem or human health risk. The effects of these pollutants on ecosystem and public health deserve immediate and systematic study. Projected tripling of tar sands activities over the next decade may result in unacceptably large and unforeseen impacts to biodiversity, ecosystem function, and public health. The attention of the world’s scientific community is urgently needed.
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