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New study finds further evidence of Athabasca tar sands leakage

Graham F. Scott

So you may remember the little scuffle we had with the Alberta government a few months ago over one of Emily Hunter‘s blog posts about the Alberta tar sands. A spokesperson for the provincial government disputed some of the assertions the post made at the time about leakage of toxins from tailings ponds, and the downstream effects of those chemicals. Short story: “[T]here is no evidence of tailings ponds seepage into the Athabasca River,” said David Sands, the provincial government’s spokesperson; Sands was “simply incorrect,” said Barry Robinson, staff lawyer for the Alberta office of Ecojustice. Dr. John O’Connor and Dr. Kevin Timoney both refuted the government’s position. In the end, we decided not to alter the original blog post and printed everyone’s responses to it, for and against.

Dr. Timoney and his colleague Peter Lee have now released a study on exactly this basic question: “Does the Alberta Tar Sands Industry Pollute?” The answer, which I think most of us intuitively felt to be “Well, duh,” isn’t quite as simple as you might think. Figuring out just how much of the downstream pollution can be attributed to industry, and how much is natural leaching into the water table is a tricky business. Furthermore, the industry churns out so much money that no one in a position of authority has really wanted to look too closely: “there are to date no comprehensive, peer-reviewed assessments of the cumulative impacts of tar sands development,” Timoney and Lee write in their introduction. “There were serious problems of scientific leadership and lack of integration and consistency with respect to approach, design, implementation, and analysis.”

The upshot is that this report aims to pose four basic questions and answer them:

  1. Is the pollution a threat to human health?
  2. Is water downstream of industry more polluted than water upstream?
  3. Is the pollution increasing over time?
  4. Are there documented incidents of industrial pollution?

The answer to all four questions is Yes. Is it definitive? No. But Timoney and Lee argue that much more study is needed:

Presently, we cannot quantitatively apportion contaminant levels into natural and industrial sources. The attention of the world’s scientific community is urgently needed. The extent to which tar sands pollutants are affecting ecosystem and public health deserves immediate and systematic study. Short of this, the projected tripling of tar sands activities over the next decade may result in unacceptably large and unforeseen impacts.

Scary stuff. Below, I’ve embedded the full report for your reading pleasure:

[Hat tip: John Hummel]

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