David Schindler

Edmonton, Alberta – The oilsands industry in Alberta is releasing more pollutants into the Athabasca River and surrounding tributaries and watershed than previously estimated, according to a new report by ecologists at the University of Alberta. David Schindler and several colleagues have completed new research on the river water and snow pack along the Athabasca and its delta.

“This study counters industry and government claims that the pollutants are from natural seepage of bitumen,” Schindler said. “The industry’s Regional Aquatic Monitoring Program and Alberta Environment’s monitoring have missed these releases and that’s a serious problem. We’ve repeatedly questioned RAMP’s findings and nothing has been done.”

The researchers analyzed thirteen elements in the water and snow and found mercury, arsenic, lead and cadmium, which they said are a clear violation of the federal fisheries act and provincial guidelines for protection of aquatic life. Schindler said that some of the metals interact with organic pollutants, making them more toxic, and that the combined impact of the toxins on the river is not fully understood.

Schindler said this study, published in the journal Proceedings on the National Academy of Sciences, focused on toxic elements in the Athabasca above and below the oilsands upgraders, and included analysis of airborne pollutants in the snow pack. Last year, the research team reported on organic pollutants from oilsands development, and found carcinogens similar to those released by the recent BP spill in the Gulf of Mexico and the 1989 Exxon Valdez tanker spill in Alaska.

“We have to establish a robust, long-term monitoring program on the Athabasca,” Schindler said. “The effects on human and environmental health must be accurate and made public.”

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