Oil Sands Development Pollute Nearby Lakes, New Study Shows

One of the biggest environmental campaigns in Canada focuses on the development of Alberta’s oil sands, which critics say create environmental hazards such as toxic sludge ponds, destruction of boreal forests and greenhouse gas emissions (lots of it and more than usual).

Exploitation of the oil sands started in 1978 and the industry has ever since been defending itself in relation to contamination of nearby ecosystems, saying that it was natural, that it would happen anyway, regardless of any extraction activities. But a new study financed by the Canadian government has found that lakes surrounding oil sands activity contain increased levels of cancer-causing compounds. Further, the contamination area was wider than previously thought, wrote The New York Times.

The study was published earlier this month and showed a rise in cancer-causing polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbon (PAH) deposits since the tar sands started being developed industrially. The researchers analyzed sediment dating back about 50 years, sampling from six small, shallow lakes located north of Fort McMurray in Alberta, the epicenter of oil sands exploitation activities. This way, they could develop a historical record of the contamination.

The data compiled shows shows that the levels of those PAH deposits have been steadily rising since large-scale oil sands production began in the late 1970s. One of the samples analyzed was found to show 2.5 to 23 times more PAHS in current sediment that in layers dating back to around 1960. The studies also showed that the wilderness lakes were now as contaminated as lakes in urban centers.

The National Resources Defense Council welcomed the study and wrote that with its results, “it’s more important than ever for the governments of Alberta and Canada to get to the root of the cancer issue in Fort Chipewyan”. Cancer rates are going up in neighboring communities, such as Ft. Chip, home to the Mikisew Cree First Nation and the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation. A study found a 30% increase in cancers in the region compared with expected. Bile duct cancers, which are typically caused by petroleum and PAHs, have seen a seven-fold increase.

It is also hoped that the study will persuade the American government to say no to the controversial Keystone XL pipeline, which would move oil down from Canada through the west of the United States down to the refineries along the Gulf Coast, or an alternative pipeline that would transport the oil from landlocked Alberta to British Columbia for export to Asia.

According to Cato, one year ago President Obama rejected the pipeline application because the Congressional deadline was too tight and did not allow for a thorough assessment. TransCanada Corporation, which is the pipeline operator, has proposed a new route through Nebraska to avoid the environmentally sensitive Sand Hills, which was one of the largest local environmental concerns of the originally proposed pipeline route. The proponents are trying to tip the US administration in favor of the project with the promise of new jobs and economic activity.

NASA’s James Hansen, who was arrested at the White House in 2011 for protesting the pipeline, said that if the project is built it will be “game over” for the climate.

Sadly, he's probably right, since oil sands have been found to emit nine percent more carbon than other types of refined oil. The world's climate simply cannot afford that.

Image credit: NYT