Thursday, September 23, 2010

PPEs in the Athabasca River Caused by Oil Sands

The July 2, 2010 article in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, “Oil sands development contributes elements toxic at low concentrations to the Athabasca River and its tributaries” details a recent study in which researchers found that the oil sands industry releases 13 PPEs (priority pollutants) into the Athabasca River. The August 31, 2010 article from Nature News, “River metals linked to tar sand extraction” uses the previous article as its primary source, summarizing the main points of the first article, though with some differences.

There were several points made in the primary source which were not made very clear in the secondary source and which could be confusing to the reader.

For example, the secondary source states that “13 elements classified as priority pollutants (PPEs) by the US Environmental Protection Agency were found in the Athabasca River in the province of Alberta.” (Hoag 2010)The way that this statement is worded leads the reader to believe that those 13 PPEs were not previously found in the Athabasca River. However, the primary source makes it clear that the PPEs have always been present in the river and that “the oil sands industry substantially increases loadings of toxic PPE to the AR and its tributaries via air and water pathways.” (Kelly and Schindler 2010) 

Later in the Nature News article, the secondary source says that seven of the PPEs were “present at high enough concentrations to put aquatic life at risk.” (Hoag 2010) Though this statement is true to some extent, the primary source explains that samples were taken from more than 31 different places, with slightly varying results depending on the location’s proximity to development. “For example, seven PPE exceeded guidelines in snow at ND sites, whereas only Cd exceeded guidelines at some BG sites.” (Kelly and Schindler 2010) The primary source also explains that the number of PPEs that exceeded guidelines was also dependant on the time of year. “Guidelines were exceeded more often in winter at AR sites.” (Kelly and Schindler 2010) 
There were also many instances where the secondary source made true statements but leaving out a lot of detail, which is essential for understanding what took place and what the results mean.

 For example, the secondary source says that “the team took samples of surface water from the waterways upstream of the tar sands region and compared them with samples taken within the region — both upstream and downstream of mining projects. The researchers also looked at snow samples from many of the same areas towards the end of winter to look for airborne sources of PPEs, which would be discharged to surface waters when the snow melted.” (Hoag 2010) This information given by the secondary source is all correct but leaves out many details about the process.  It leaves the reader with an incorrect idea of the amount of locations tested. The researchers collected surface water from 37 sites in February 2008, 47 sites in June 2008, and snow from 31 sites in March 2008. These sites were either upstream or downstream from the oil activity and were classified according to an index of relative overall land disturbance. They also chose 3 sites (one upstream, one midstream, one downstream) at each of the 4 tributaries of the Athabasca River.  

At some points in the article, the secondary source was very vague. For example, the secondary source merely states that “the findings are also of concern to human health.” (Hoag 2010) However, the primary source goes into much more detail and gives several examples, saying that though the increased amounts of metal in the water is a concern, the PPE concentrations in the Athabasca River don’t exceed the drinking water quality guidelines. It is mentioned that one way that increased levels of PPEs in the water is a concern, is by affecting animals. The article gives the example of a link between diseases in fish and certain carcinogens.  They also give the example of moose, which are affected by Cd which accumulates in their liver and kidneys.

Though the secondary source does a good job of summarizing most of the important points from the primary source, there were still some that were not mentioned which are pertinent to the study which was conducted. For example, though the secondary source touches on the fact that Alberta’s oil industry is planning on expanding, it does not convey the effects which this study predict that expansion will have. The primary source says that new and expanding facilities will add to the problem and increase the concentrations of these harmful elements in the Athabasca River even more.


Hoag, Hannah. 2010. “River metals linked to tar sand extraction.” Nature News, 31 August, 2010.  Accessed 22 Sept 2010.

Kelly, E. N., Schindler, D. W., Hodson, P. V., Short, J. W., Radmanovich, R. & Nielsen, C. C. 2010. “Oil sands
development contributes elements toxic at low concentrations to the Athabasca River and its tributaries.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, vol. 107, no. 37, Sept. 14, 2010.   

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