Oil Sands Development and Pollution of the Athabasca River

Yesterday some scientists from the University of Alberta, Queen’s University and Oceana, Juneau published a peer-reviewed paper about our oil sands. The paper, which was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences [1] unequivocally makes the statement that the oil sands industry is polluting the Athabasca River in a way that violates Canada’s and Alberta’s environmental guidelines. In their conclusion, the scientists state that “contrary to claims made by industry and government in the popular press, the oil sands industry substantially increases loadings of toxic [pollutants] to the [Athabasca River] and its tributaries via air and water pathways.

In particular I’d like to bring attention to their statement that their observations do not support the claim that contamination of the Athabasca River and its tributaries is only from natural erosion. They state clearly that instead their results indicate that the source of the concern was oil sands development.

The CBC wrote a news article on this issue yesterday and presented a video in which they interviewed Fred Kuzmic of the Regional Aquatics Monitoring Program who argues that the pollution of the Athabasca River is due to natural erosion. I’d like to make one point about the interview. The interviewer asks about the fact that pollutants were more concentrated upstream than downstream of the oil sands. To be clear, the scientists looked at four separate tributaries that were affected by oil sands development. On each of these four tributaries, they compared three sites: one that was upstream of oil sands development and the McMurray Formation, one that was within the McMurray Formation but upstream of development, and one that was downstream of development. They did studies of comparable sites on two other tributaries that were not near oil sands development and which they used as a reference. They also did separate studies at the mouths of streams before confluence with the Athabasca River, looking at tributaries with and without upstream development.

Feel free to continue by reading the CBC article and watching the interview at this link. Another CBC article, including links to video interviews with David Schindler from the University of Alberta, is available here. There’s also a Globe and Mail article here, a blog entry from Discover Magazine here, an article from the Winnipeg Free Press here, and an article from Reuters here.


[1] Erin N. Kelly, David W. Schindler, Peter V. Hodson, Jeffrey W. Short, Roseanna Radmanovich, and Charlene C. Nielsen,
Oil sands development contributes elements toxic at low concentrations to the Athabasca River and its tributaries,
Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America,
www.pnas.org/cgi/doi/10.1073/pnas.1008754107

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