Study finds industry underreporting of oilsands pollutants by Andrew Nikiforuk, February 3, 2014, The Tyee.ca
A new study has found that certain types of chemical pollutants emitted by Canada’s oilsands tailing ponds have gone underreported for years. Using a computer simulation model, two University of Toronto scientists also found the pollutants in question are blowing off mine sites or evaporating from nearly two dozen impoundments containing a billion cubic metres of toxic waste. Two of the dikes holding the mining waste products are among the largest man-made dams in the world. The pollutants are three polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAH), a class of chemicals that includes a variety of cancer makers and that have become a major contaminant of waterways in the region.
When the scientists discovered that industry reporting on estimates of PAH pollutants in the oilsands were too low to explain the levels of PAHs now being found up to 95 kilometres away, they realized that industry had not been reporting emissions from the tailing ponds. The scientists also found that PAHs evaporating from the lakes of mining waste were likely a greater contributor of pollution to the atmosphere in the region than emissions directly released into the air by industry.
In a companion essay to the study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), water ecologist David Schindler explained the significance of the findings by noting “that by ignoring emissions from tailings ponds, the annual release of polycyclic aromatic compounds from the oilsands industry have been underestimated by as much as two orders-of-magnitude.”
“Unfortunately, both the official National Pollutant Release Inventory and all previous environmental impact assessments for oilsands expansion in the area have relied on the underestimated values,” added Schindler.
Each year, oilsands tailings ponds, which represent a $20-billion clean-up liability for the province of Alberta, increase in area and volume, despite 2009 regulations that were supposed to contain their spread due to public concerns about leaks and bird deaths. In 2013, the Alberta Energy Regulator (formerly the Energy Resources Conservation Board) admitted that the industry had failed to meet the standards to contain the production of toxic waste: “Given the issues that industry has encountered, the ERCB does not believe that it would be appropriate to enforce compliance measures at this time,” it added in a report assessing tailings management.
According to the Pembina Institute, the oilsands mining industry could submerge an area the size of New York’s Central Park in 3.4 meters of toxic waste every month by 2022.
The pollutant modelling study follows reports of growing mercury pollution around the oilseeds made by Environment Canada scientists at a conference of the Society of Environmental Toxicology and Chemistry in Nashville last November. Scientists reported that a 19,000 square-kilometre area around the project is now “currently impacted by airborne Hg (mercury) emissions originating from oilsands developments.” Mercury levels in birds downstream of the project have been increasing in several species, and now exceed toxic thresholds for Caspian Terns.
New Study: Environmental health risks of Alberta oilsands probably underestimated by John Cotter, The Canadian Press, Februay 3, 2014, Calgary Herald
Researchers say emissions of potentially hazardous air pollution that were used in environmental reviews done before approving some projects did not include evaporation from tailings ponds or other sources, such as dust from mining sites. The study, by the University of Toronto’s environmental chemistry research group, looked at reported levels of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAH) — chemicals which can be released into the air, water and soil when bitumen-rich oilsands are mined and processed. “Our study shows that emissions of PAH estimated in environmental impact assessments conducted to approve developments in the Athabasca oilsands region are likely too low,” reads the study published Monday in the U.S. journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. “The potential therefore exists that estimation of future risk to humans and wildlife because of surface mining in the Athabasca oilsands region has been underestimated.”
Professor Frank Wania, one of the study’s authors, said the results highlight the need for improved accounting of PAH emissions from oilsands operations, especially when more projects are being built or planned in the region. Using computer models, researchers studied emissions estimates from environmental reports to predict chemical concentrations from direct oilsands industrial activity such as mining, processing and vehicle traffic. They found the levels were lower than actually measured levels of chemicals in the air recorded in other scientific studies. Researchers then modified the computer model to factor in estimates of evaporation from oilsands tailing ponds. Predicted concentrations were then much closer to the recorded levels. They used a third model using concentrations of PAH levels measured by Environment Canada in the region between November 2010 and February 2011.
The results suggest emissions may be two to three times higher than the estimates recorded in project environmental reviews. Wania said some chemicals pose a potential cancer risk, but nothing imminent. The concentrations that have been measured in the air in the oilsands region are comparable to a big city such as Toronto. “It is not that I am raising the red flag here, that we should be very concerned, because we live with these concentrations day in and day out,” he said.
“All we are saying is that the basis for the human health risk assessment is flawed.”
Environment Canada officials were not immediately available for comment.
Simon Dyer of the Pembina Institute, an environmental policy think-tank, said the study raises questions about tailings ponds and oilsands monitoring. He said industry has never demonstrated that it is able to effectively deal with tailings waste and the government is not enforcing existing cleanup rules. “This study provides further evidence that rules need to be enforced and the growth of tailings waste halted,” he wrote in an email. Dyer said governments and regulators need to take the study’s findings into account when determining if it is appropriate to approve new projects. He also said oilsands monitoring needs to be expanded. Wania said the team’s research was funded by the university. He said Environment Canada is now providing money for more research to follow up on the findings.
A report published last year in the same journal found that oilsands development is polluting surrounding lakes in northern Alberta. The federally funded research by some of Canada’s top scientists found levels of toxic hydrocarbons in six lakes between 2 1/2 and 23 times what they were before the mines were built. The paper said while overall toxin levels remain low, trends aren’t good and some lakes are already approaching warning levels. It said the timing of the contamination and its chemical makeup point to industrial sources. [Emphasis added]
Evaluating officially reported polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbon emissions in the Athabasca oil sands region with a multimedia fate model by Abha Parajulee and Frank Wania, accepted by the Editorial Board January 2, 2014, received for review October 23, 2013, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the USA
[Refer also to:
2012: Dr. David Schindler: Tar Sands Science “Shoddy”, “Must Change” In 2003 and 2004, the public was shocked to hear that high levels of rare colon and bile-duct cancers plagued the community of Fort Chipewyan. Family physician John O’Connor, who discovered the problem, was charged with professional misconductin 2007 by Health Canada. The federal body accused the practitioner of causing ‘undue alarm’ in the community and subsequently blocked O’Connor’s access to patient files. The Alberta Cancer Board confirmed in 2008 that higher than normal rates of rare cancer were present in the small community. The government refused to remove the charge of alarmism from O’Connor’s file until late 2009, despite express wishes from the residents of Fort Chipewyan to have the accusation dropped.
But Dr. O’Connor is not the only cautious voice to receive heavy-handed treatment from the government when it comes to unwanted information regarding the tar sands. Dr. Schindler’s findings regarding contamination originating from the tar sands was publicly called into question by the provincial government who accused Schindler of scientific bias. At the time the provincial government claimed contaminants in the watershed were naturally occurring. [Emphasis added]