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Mythbusting: Are the Oilsands Harming Our Water?

Alykhan July 13, 2011

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.

Comments (22)

  1. This article failed to mention the multiple, both federal and provincial reports, and RAMP peer review studies in 2004 and 2007 that concluded that current monitoring did not have the capacity or consistency to monitor the impacts of the development on the Athabasca. In fact, the Royal Society of Canada report used this data to make their claim which is clearly unfounded based on what we know about RAMP now. We actually don’t have a clue what is in the river, and the Schindler report was pretty damning in that in mentioned that seven of the ‘priority pollutants’ identified by the USEPA exceeded Alberta and Canadian limits.

    With water with drawls, this article did exactly what industry and government has done which is cite annual flow rates, not seasonal ones. With the inclusion of the Total mine, low flow water withdrawls could take up to 11%. This doesn’t include future declining rates of flows due to climate change (which I assume this website doesn’t believe in) as the Jasper glacier melts. Low flows in winter mean a loss of oxygen and impacts on wildlife and aquatic health.

    I’m also curious what ‘water management law’, reduces with drawls during low flow periods. The current water management framework does not identify Ecological Base Flows (EBF), or the minimum amount of water the the eco-system needs to survive. In theory, withdrawls could reach the EBF with as little as 5% of diversion.

    ‘Ethicial’ is a point of comparison, murder doesn’t make a break and enter ‘ethical’

    I really hope this gets posted but I’m doubtful.

    • Every project I’ve worked on has a set limit of water that we are allowed to withdraw from the Athabasca river as set by the client we work for along with the Government of Alberta. The goal is to take that amount and use LESS that we are allowed and recycle what we can do that we withdraw less. Brackish water also supplies our need for water as well. During low flow, a previous project I worked on, made the ‘rule/law’ that we were not to draw any water from the Athabasca at all. Which meant that we had to collect water from various sources to make up for this loss. Even though we were told that we could take out a percentage, the client decided to use different alternatives so that we weren’t taking any water at all.

  2. Pingback: More Myths About Oil Sands

  3. The latest round of reviews have put this to bed, the monitoring of the water and air will be done to a high standard of scientific rigour. The former monitoring was adequate for a time but that time has past. It is a natural (a little slow) evolution in the oilsands. Water usage is a non issue in that if the operators could use less they would, less water equals less heating of water, equals chepaer production costs.

  4. Why does this article not mention the extreme rates of cancer that are being recorded in the native communities downstream?

    Does anyone reading this actually buy this propaganda… Obviously there are major problems with the oil sands that need to be looked, as this article would completely gloss over. On the other side, the oil sands are obviously not going to single handedly destroy the world like green peace would have you think. Start thinking for yourselves and not being so bloody credulous.

    • You hear about the rates of cancer downstream… Have you looked at the rates upstream? Oil phisically lines the banks of the river because its at the surface.

  5. Having worked with an environmental group fighting a development in my neighborhood I know how easily data can be skewed and omitted just to get the results wanted. Often at times such as in our case with the archeology, if an archeologist or biologist has findings that produce unwanted results for the oil companies or the developers, the archeologist or biologist is often fired. As stated I have a good example of this in my own neighborhood.

  6. The truth about what the First Nations truly think of the Tar Sands is captured very well in this documentary:

    Let the First Nations do the speaking for themselves rather then allowing the oil companies do the talking for them.

  7. So you say pretty much everyone has misinterpreted David Schindler’s report yet you don’t seem to provide a link to this proof. You have absolutely no sources to the information you provide. Without siting your sources your have absolutely no credibility. A simple search of David Schindler and the tar sands brings in a ton of articles of him explaining how toxic the Athabasca River is. This article basically just says all the articles wrote on this fact is wrong. So im just supposed to take your word? I’m sorry, I would rather have my dick cut off and have someone rape me up the ass with my own dick then take your word.

  8. Pingback: The Only Choice Is Where It Gets Burned | Watts Up With That?

  9. Tar Sands Oil Extraction “The dirty truth ” is a good video source on You Tube and gives lots of information that shows how far these lyers will go and say to make us think tas iol is safe. IT IS NOT SAFE!!!

  10. The above greenwash totally misrepresents our work. What we showed that was inportant was that the claims of the oilsands industry and Alberta government that they are adding no contaminants to the river are not correct. Comparisons with background areas show that they are causing several-fold increases. It is not the current levels of pollutants that we need to be concerned about, but future levels. It takes at least a decade between proposal of a new project and its beginning operation (approval is never a concern, they are all approved, in a process where the results are known in advance, just another scripted farcical opera). So we must be able to anticipate a decade ahead when a new project will be causing problems. Modern chemistry allows us o do this via state of the art monitoring. As six different panel reports in 2010-2011 show, past monitoring has been amateurish, using poor methds, monitoring at the wrong times and places, using poor chemical laboratories, changing methods without intercalibration.

    On top of all of that, we do not have guidelines for mixtures of several toxicants, and no guidelines at all for the polycyclic aromatic compounds that have been particularly poorly monitored, using methods several orders of magnitude poorer than state of the art.

    What we do know is that two decades after the Exxon Valdez spill, polycyclic aromatics are still suppressing reproduction in Alaskan sea otters.

    And “ethical oil?’ Is it ethical to disregard the terms of Treaty 8, by which we guaranteed native people that they would be able to obtain subsistence from the land? Is it ethical to supply the US with oil, while we supply none to eastern Canada, requiring them to rely on the same so-called “unethical” sources that the USA is trying to get rid of?

    THe solution is an easy one: Cut the greenwash, conduct good science run by independent agencies, put it in peer reviewed publications, make it publicly transparent, spend the money now allocated to sheer propaganda for real science, devise real solutions to the problems caused by oil sands exploitation, or slow exploitation until we can. Informed democracy requires no less.

  11. Please should watch H2OIL before making up their minds. What would be best actually would be for members of this Ethical Oil organization to publicly drink water from the Athabasca River if they are so convinced the tar sands have no effect on water.

  12. You cite a Financial Post article to counter peer-reviewed academic articles? Very thorough. Did you forget that the water monitoring system is a failure? A failure even by the Federal government’s own admission (after overwhelming evidence produced by Schindler). You should’ve kept your job as a DJ for Jason Kenney.

  13. D Schindler, I too have a Ph.D. and am a scientist working in AB’s Oil Sand Industry. Here are my comments to your’s below and with respect to your recent publications on the topic in question:

    1.) Regional geology and geochemistry shows strong seasonal fluxuations in metals both upstream, midstream and downstream of Fort McMurray, and Surface Mining Operations. Correlations point to the obvious, that when dissolved or total dissolved metal concentrations are high so is the river water flow rate and therefore the total suspended solids. This means that metals leaching naturally from the errosion of formations along the Abasand, Clearwater, Steepbank and Athabasca Rivers are dominating the behavior of the entire system – not anthropogenic in-puts;

    2.) Your claim that metals deposition into regional air shed is directly related to bitumen upgrading versus from any other regional source is obviously biased and should not have passed the peer review process without more effective reverse dispersion analysis. These metals you discussed in your paper are trace components in regional mineral phases present in dirt that is lifted into the atmosphere as fugitive dust emissions. As a resident of Fort McMurray and witness to all the residential construction in town produces significant dust emissions as do human activities everwhere that dirt is moved;

    3.) Vitt et al. has recently shown that regional forests in close proximity to surface mining operations are gowing up to 3x faster than more remote locations. The correlation was elevated nitrogen that was depositing on the landscape via natural nitrogen cycling processes that utilize NOx emitted by anthropogenic sources within the Oil Sands region. This means that GHG emissions from Oil Sands are actually being off-set at the same time, much like shallow tilling practices in farming can result in GHG off-sets;

    4.) Polyaromatic hydrocarbons (PAH) in river sediment, upstream, midstream and downsteam are up to 2 p / kg of sediment. This FACT you failed as a scientist to take into account. The concept of background noise is so fundamental in experimental chemistry, and as a reviewer, I would have failed you and the work you did on this account alone;

    5.) Accumulative NOx and SO2 emissions into the regional air shed are being base neutralized by the elevated base cation concentrations (Calcium, Magnesium etc.) present in the Athabasca River Valley. Regional pH in Fort McKay and in Fort McMurray has been 0.5 to 0.7 pH units higher than Fort Chipewyan for over ten years with no signs of acidification inspite of the growth in emissions. This suggests that anthropogenic emissions in the Oil Sands are neutralizing acid rain as it forms photochemically, the net result is FERTILIZATION in of nutrient limited Boreal Forest.

    I could go on and on….

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