Science for change on Athabasca River

Science for change on Athabasca River
Dr. Erin Kelly, above, during her research on the Athabasca River. Right, all the samples taken along the river and its tributaries. The darker the filter, the more crude bitumen that was found in the sample. As evidenced by the diagram, oil deposits in snow were much higher around oilsands facilities, and less as the scientists went downstream.

In the past year and a half Dr. Erin Kelly and her colleagues have released two scientific papers that shook both the Alberta and federal governments.

Since their studies that showed oil sands development contributing polycyclic aromatic compounds (PACs) and toxic metals to the Athabasca River, development of an entirely new federal monitoring system for the Athabasca River ecosystem has begun.

Finally, governments have started taking downstream concerns on the changing environment seriously.

In early 2008, when funding for the research became available, Kelly was living in Yellowknife.  She had moved north in September 2007, after completing her Ph.D., to work for an environmental consulting company.  She was happy to be finished her schooling and excited to begin her career. But a phone call from Dr. David Schindler – a world renowned water scientist and her graduate supervisor at the University of Alberta – changed her mind in a heartbeat.

“Dave called and said I have a really interesting project for you,” Kelly recalled during a presentation at Aurora College on her research. “He asked if I was interested in working on the oil sands project. I said yes.”


Essentially the research team wanted to test claims that pollution in the Athabasca River was a result of natural sources, not industry. Elders downstream had told Schindler about changes to the environment that they had been noticing for years. Yet monitoring results from the Regional Aquatics Monitoring Program showed there were essentially no effects of oil sands development on the Athabasca River.

The research team also included Jeff Short, one of the scientists who worked on the Exxon Valdez oil spill off the coast of Alaska, and Peter Hodson, an expert on the effects of contaminants on fish. Together, they set about designing a study that would test the “natural sources” hypothesis.

The research involved taking water samples in both winter and summer and snow samples in the winter, upstream of the McMurray geologic formation which contains oilsands deposits, within the McMurray formation upstream of industrial development, and within the McMurray formation downstream of development.  On the Athabasca River, 17 samples were taken from upstream of Fort McMurray, through the area affected by oil sands development, to the Delta and Fort Chipewyan.

Their first sampling session took place in the winter.  Kelly and her field assistants noticed the snow near the Suncor and Syncrude upgrading facilities looked dirty and was grey.  When the snow samples were melted down, a layer of oil floated on top. When the pots were emptied oil slicks could be seen at the bottom.

Extrapolating from their March snow results, Kelly and her colleagues estimated that 11400 tonnes of particulate were deposited on snow within 50 kms of the Syncrude and Suncor upgrading facilities during the winter of 2008, five times more than what industry had reported emitting from the stacks.

After summer sampling, a clear picture emerged.  Concentrations of PACs were greatest just downstream of new industrial development.  Concentrations of metals were greatest on the Athabasca River just downstream of development and declined with distance  downstream.  Concentrations of some metals were greater than upstream concentrations all the way into the Delta.

Kelly said that despite budget limitations, the studies show a clear conclusion – that there are “major industry related inputs of PAC and metals to the Athabasca River watershed through the air and water.”

She said she is glad  the federal government is working to improve montoring efforts, and that the proposed water quality monitoring plan for the oil sands region is comprehensive and detailed.

In the meantime, she identified a couple of ways to reduce industrial inputs of PAC and metals to aquatic ecosystems. One suggestion she had was to put better precipitators into smokestacks to reduce emissions of PAC and metals. The second was to stop clearing land to the edge of rivers, which would decrease inputs of contaminants to waterbodies.

In the end, however, she said the scientific community needs to get involved in oilsands research before the rapid pace of development eliminates sites where essential data on background conditions can be collected.

“The results of our study led to the identification of many important research questions that still need to be studied” she said. “Relevant, credible and transparent oil sands research and long-term monitoring are definitely needed.”

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