Thursday, September 23, 2010

Oil sands development contributes elements toxic at low concentrations to the Athabasca River and its tributaries

The Suncor oil sands mine in the northern Alberta runs 24 hours a day, year round.

Photo-- Ian Jackson: The New York Times

Recently established in most accepted sources of media, oil sands development have been shown to be a part of Canada’s strong economy (Krauss). Tar mixed with sand and metals are extracted and become what is known as bitumen which is further processed into synthetic oil (Krauss). The newspaper article brings forth the argument made by the citizens of Alberta that “high cancer rates are related to the expanding excavation of bitumen for the production of synthetic crude” (Krauss). The article claims that a study led by researchers from the University of Alberta found levels of toxic pollutants exceeding federal and provincial government guidelines near and around oil sands mining sites. According to the article, researchers found unusual levels of lead, mercury, zinc, and cadmium downstream from the oil sands mining sites. The study from the Journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences addresses these elements as well, however including thirteen in total, naming them Primary Pollutant Elements (PPE). The newspaper article fails to mention all thirteen pollutants, therefore misinforming the reader as to the severity of pollutants present. Additionally, Krauss mentions that after the tar (bitumen) is extracted, it is processed into synthetic oil. Krauss fails to include the evidence from the study which illustrates the knowledge that while converting bitumen into synthetic oil, the processing involves coking, coke combustion, and production of wastes and fly ash that contain PPE (Kelly et al). The study clearly states that the “upgrading process” of bitumen to oil is significant to the amount of PPE found in the air (Kelly et al). This valid information cannot be found in the article, which advances the notion that the newspaper article is presenting limited or selective information. Krauss reports that according to a joint oil industry-government research panel, natural causes opposed to mining as earlier suggested were the cause of the high levels of metals found in the Athabasca River. Conversely though, no evidence is given in the article to back up the “natural causes” testimony. In the article, Krauss discretely includes the idea that studies are biased based upon the group leading the study. This is exemplified when he says, “…a community that is complaining about high cancer rates, found high levels of carcinogens and toxic substances in fish, water and sediment downstream from the mining projects.”

Results from the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences indicate that PPE levels as sampled in six tributaries near oil sands development did not show a considerable increase, however the PPE levels are said to be attributed with overall land disturbance (Kelly et al). The tributary research is a main component of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences study, and provides the clearest and most certain evidence of the pollutants, yet is unmentioned by Krauss in the newspaper article. The study shows that in the tributaries tested, overall land disturbance caused a major flux of PPE to water which Krauss seems to have made the assumption that automatically this results in the correlation of toxic substances found in fish. The newspaper article includes the research made by the Regional Aquatic Monitoring Program (RAMP), industry, government and other related agencies that cancer rates and other health related and environmental issues are not at risk from oil sands development. Contrarily, the journal explains that the RAMP is continually not dependable for accuracy therefore this piece of information should not be considered of great value, yet Krauss uses it in the article to create a sense of quarrel. Furthermore, the journal goes on to articulate the necessity of their independent field studies, which Krauss also falls short to mention. A noteworthy aspect of the journal study is that PPE concentrations were increased during summer months when the development of oil sands are in prime season. In winter months, the sites were evidently less disturbed (Kelly et al). This leads to the conclusion that natural erosion is a false assumption and that oil sands development is directly related to land disturbance. This major piece of information was lacking in Krauss’s article and therefore the article does not provide the public with the full background information necessary to understand the causes and effects of oil sands development. No suggestions are made by Krauss in the article to improve or progress keeping the effects of oil sands development minimal. Yet the journal study concludes with propositions to concentrate on “detailed long-term monitoring to distinguish the sources of these contaminants and control their potential impacts on environmental and human health” (Kelly et al). Monitoring programs are also suggested to be put into practice to examine the effects of oil sands development on the health of fish, wildlife, and humans in areas most susceptible to problems caused by oil sands development (Kelly et al).

Works Cited

Kelly, Erin, David Shindler, Peter Hodson, Jeffrey Short, Roseanna Radmanovich, and Charlene Nielson. "Oil Sands Development Contributes Elements Toxic at Low Concentrations to the Athabasca River and Its Tributaries." 107.37 (2010). PNAS. Web. 19 Sept. 2010. .

Krauss, Clifford. "New Study Links Toxic Pollutants to Canadian Oil Sands Mining." The New York Times.30 Aug. 2010. Web. 19 Sept. 2010/30/new- findings-on-toxic-pollutants-and-oil-sands-mining/>.

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