It might be hard to believe it if you’ve never seen Alberta’s remarkable oilsands region up close and in person, but sometimes, the river water quality adjacent to an oilsands operation is cleaner than the water upstream. That’s because the banks along the Athabasca River have been naturally oozing bitumen into the water for thousands of years (you can see a good photo of what that looks like here). Natives used to scoop up the oily stuff to waterproof their canoes.
Still, the Athabasca’s water quality is intensely monitored, particularly by a man named David Schindler, a highly regarded professor of ecology at the University of Alberta (he’s been awarded 10 honourary doctorates, has more than 300 publications to his name, is an officer of the Order of Canada, and a recipient of the Alberta Order of Excellence). Schindler isn’t a huge fan of the oilsands and his research has been funded by the Tides Foundation, a major American donor to anti-oilsands campaigns. In 2008, he published, along with a graduate student, a Tides-funded report on water quality around the oilsands that set off a bit of media hysteria: As Vivian Krause, in the Financial Post, noted “Ultimately, both the Alberta government and the federal government appointed scientific panels to review the monitoring of oil sands operations,” in the wake of the results.
But, as the Financial Post points out, the results were badly interpreted by the press, which failed to grasp that contaminant levels in the bitumen-rich oilsands region are unique, and, so, were generally overhyped. Schindler himself would later call the report’s findings “kind of boring.” The data about contaminants in the river reported by Schindler were around the same that the oil industry had been reporting all along. Most of the contaminant levels were low, including from samples taken directly around the industrial operations. In a number of cases the contaminants measured—which included mercury, lead, arsenic, nickel, silver, copper, cadmium, chromium, selenium, zinc, beryllium, thallium and antimony (most of the same substances are emitted from your car’s tailpipe)— “were below the method detection limits,” Schindler reported. Nowhere did Schindler find contaminants exceeding drinking water guidelines.
If you understand that oil (and in some places, uranium) naturally occurs along the Athabasca, you wouldn’t be surprised that Schindler found that pollutants far away from the oilsands industrial operations were sometimes higher than nearby the mining sites: “Based on distance, these greater concentrations probably were from local sources unrelated to oil sands mining and processing,” his study said. Of course, if you don’t understand the unusual environment around the Athabasca, you’d only end up confused—as most reporters were.
The fact that few Canadians, never mind Americans, understand much about aquatic ecosystems, let alone the Athabasca system in particular, is what anti-oilsands groups, eager to wildly spin reports about the river out of all proportion, are counting on. It’s why they have repeatedly broadcast accounts of supposedly deformed fish found at the river. In fact, the one, single specimen produced, a fish allegedly discovered with two jaws, was, scientists later determined, not deformed at all: it was just badly decomposed. As the gold-standard Royal Society of Canada reported in its sweeping December 2010 study of the oilsands: “Current evidence on water quality impacts on the Athabasca River system suggests that oil sands development activities are not a current threat to aquatic system viability.”
Anti-oilsands groups also make a habit of claiming that the Athabasca is being drained for use in oilsands processes. It’s a claim that’s every bit as baseless as the polluted water and mutant fish. The truth is that all the oilsands companies combined only have permission from the government to use a maximum of 2.2 per cent of the Athabasca River’s flow. Typically, they only use 1 per cent – but even that gets cut back significantly in low-flow periods, under a water management law. And only the oilsands mines use river water for their production; most oil sands operations use in situ processes—drilling for oil underground—and don’t use the river at all. They also recycle 90% of the underground spring water they do tap.
That’s another thing that makes the oilsands region strange and unique: a lot of industrial areas aren’t nearly as ethical in the way they use water. Some American states, particularly in the parched southern U.S., have signed contracts apportioning out 100% of the flow of certain rivers. It’s not uncommon for up to 85% of the Potomac River to be drained for human use—roughly 40 times more than what oilsands operators are permitted to draw from Alberta watersheds. If you’re looking for serious impacts on water, you’ll find plenty in Washington D.C. and Arizona. You certainly won’t find it around the oilsands.