A study set to be published on Monday has found elevated levels of mercury, lead and eleven other toxic elements in the oil sands' main fresh water source, the Athabasca River, refuting long-standing government and industry claims that water quality there hasn't been affected by oil sands development.
The author of the study, University of Alberta biological scientist David Schindler, criticized the province and industry for an "absurd" system that obfuscates or fails to discover essential data about the river. "I think they [the findings]are significant enough that they should trigger some interest in a better monitoring program than we have," he said.
The Athabasca has increasingly become a flashpoint for debate. Earlier this year, Environment Minister Jim Prentice dismissed Dr. Schindler's previous peer-reviewed work as "allegations."
Oil surfaces naturally in the Athabasca and its tributaries as the river erodes the bitumen below it. The government argues it is this, not industry, that is the main cause of the pollution.
"The erosion of natural sources is huge. It far exceeds anything you'd be able to detect from the industrial component," said Preston McEachern, head of science, research and innovation for Alberta Environment.
He argues Dr. Schindler's conclusions don't accurately take that into account. "There's nothing I would say the government absolutely disagrees with - other than the fact that in his paper, the context of the natural sources is not expressed as accurately as our data indicates it is."
Mr. McEachern argued government monitoring shows pollution hasn't significantly increased in the Athabasca.
Mr. McEachern added his counterpart's work is "a very good study" but lacked context. "I don't think anybody's ever said the oil sands don't pollute at all," he said. (An online Alberta government fact sheet states "data indicates no increased concentration of contaminants in surface water in the oil sands area.")
The study, to be published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, found the oil industry "releases" all 13 of the United States' Environmental Protection Agency's so-called priority pollutants, including mercury and lead, into the Athabasca at concentrations that are higher near industry during the summer. In winter, before a melt, only levels of mercury, nickel and thallium were elevated near industry
Overall levels of seven elements - mercury, lead, cadmium, copper, nickel, silver and zinc - exceed those recommended by Alberta or Canada for the protection of aquatic life, it said, concluding the "oil sands industry substantially increases loadings" of toxins into the river.
The industry-led Regional Aquatics Monitoring Program (RAMP) oversees water quality in the river. Dr. Schindler is a critic of the system, and this month the Liberal Party of Canada lamented RAMP's "lack of transparency."
Simon Dyer, oil sands program director for the Pembina Institute, an environmental think-tank based in Calgary, said the research "make[s]the Alberta government's claim, that there is no pollution downstream of these sites, increasingly untenable."
A RAMP spokesperson was unavailable Sunday. Travis Davies, a spokesman for the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers, insisted RAMP is "independently monitored" and "the Athabasca is one of the most stringently monitored and regulated rivers in the world."
Joe Obad, associate director of Alberta advocacy group Water Matters, called the study "the most detailed independent, peer-reviewed work we have seen so far on mercury and lead" in the oil sands.
The Globe and Mail received a copy of the study from a third party.