Toxic substances found in snow near Alberta oilsands

Opponents of Canada's policy to rapidly develop oil sands production are likely to leap on newly released research suggesting pollution from mining the oil-laden bitumin is showing up in snow near extraction sites and also in lakes up to 100 kilometres away.

CBC News reported that a presentation by Environment Canada scientists this week to a Society of Environmental Toxicology and Chemistry conference in California turned up toxic substances dangerous to fish eggs in snow.

University of Alberta biologist David Schindler said he's not surprised by the results and that the studies "confirm my worst suspicions."

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In 2009, Schindler also found contaminants in snow near the oil sands and later his team discovered a fish with a tumor, which they linked to oil-sands contamination, CBC News said.

The snow within 50 kilometres of oil-sands operations was contaminated with a long list of "priority pollutants," including a neurotoxin that builds up in food webs, Postmedia News reported. Snow-melt runoff collected near oil-sands plants was toxic to newly hatched minnows in the lab, the researchers found.

Alberta Environment spokeswoman Erin Carrier said the provincial government takes the findings seriously.

"We recognize that there is naturally occurring bitumen in the area," Carrier told CBC News. "But we also recognize that with the development of oilsands in the area, that we do have to monitor."

The Alberta government says it has worked with Ottawa to launch a joint monitoring program in northern Alberta.

Another study being presented at the conference in Long Beach, Calif., reveals that Environment Canada scientists have discovered contaminants linked to oil sands in the sediments of lakes up to 100 kilometres away, according to Postmedia News.

"The footprint of the deposition is potentially larger than we might have anticipated," said Derek Muir, a senior Environment Canada scientist.

The pollutants found in lake sediment are called polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, or PAHs.

"That means the footprint is four times bigger than we found," said Schindler, referring to his own research that tracked heavy metals and other pollutants up to 50 kilometres from oil-sands operations.

The research, which looked at six remote lakes whose sediments have been collecting undisturbed for a century except for atmospheric deposits, found the level of PAHs increased dramatically beginning in the early 1970s to up to 23 times pre-1960s levels.

However, the hydrocarbon contaminants were lower than "guideline limits" except for the lake closest to oil-sands operations, researchers found.

"So overall we don't think that the PAHs have yet reached a level in the sediments of these lakes where they are going to be toxic to aquatic life," Muir told Postmedia News.

But "there is definitely a concern about it," he said, adding more work in underway to sample sediments in other remote lakes in the region.

The study seem to contradict results in research released last month that found only negligible levels of contaminants in lakes up to 200 kilometres from oil-sands operations. The two earlier studies suggested PAH contamination came from natural sources via water runoff.

Critics have challenged the sampling methods and the fact the work was bankrolled by an oilsands producer.

Environmentalists worry that given the Conservative government's policy towards rapid oilsands development, the research done by Environment Canada scientists won't get much attention.

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"Scientists have been told to refer questions to media liaisons and not to actually speak about their studies themselves," Chelsea Flook, executive director for the Prairies at the Sierra Club, told CBC News.

At a similar conference held in Boston last year, Environment Canada scientists were given a list of precise answers for reporters' questions, CBC News said.

Postmedia News reported that Environment Canada said scientists were not available to discuss their findings and only arranged interviews after the news agency obtained details of the reports to be presented at the Long Beach conference this week.