Back in 2010, residents near the shores of Canada’s Lake Athabasca called on the government to commission an independent study about the impact of the tar sands development in northern Alberta and Saskatchewan on the environment. Lake Athabasca is located downstream from one of the major tar sands developments and residents, who had found more and more fish with deformities (including huge tumors), demanded that a system of environmental monitoring be put in place and an investigation be carried out.
On Monday, the study resulting from these concerns was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) and the verdict is clear: tar sands are bad for our health and for the environment.
In the study, Canadian researchers found that, since the 1960s when the tar sands development was started, the level of pollutants — specifically, of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), which have been shown to adversely affect birds and aquatic organisms — has risen in six freshwater lakes. By examining sediment from five lakes within a 22-mile radius of the tar sands and one remote lake about 60 miles north, scientists found that PAH levels are now 2.5-23 times greater than than had been around 1960.
In the past decades, there has been a huge increase in developing the tar sands, as these are viewed as an increasingly important part of the world’s oil reserves at a time of rising energy prices and insatiable demand.
The tar sands in northern Alberta and Saskatchewan are the third largest reserve in the world and contain 97 percent of Canada’s reserves. Some speculate that Canada has been drawing heavily on the tar sands, and overlooking the environmental impact, as a way to “cushion the Canadian economy from shocks in global energy prices.”
Tar Sands Development Has Made Wildlife Ponds As Polluted As Urban Ones
The title of the study is “Legacy of a half century of Athabasca oil sands development recorded by lake ecosystems.” Based on the dirty evidence in once pristine lakes, that “legacy” is one we don’t want.
Indeed, the scientists’ long-term findings are all the more crucial as the tar sands industry has contended that pollution is “natural.” PAHs can be found in coal, crude oil, petroleum and in products made from fossil fuels, such as creosote and asphalt; they can also be released into the air when fossil fuels and organic matter are burned and are produced by volcanoes and forest fires.
But the researchers found, since 1978 (when large-scale production of tar sands got underway), that the levels of PAH deposits have been “steadily rising” from what they had been at for centuries. As the study simply states,
Because of the striking increase in PAHs, elevated primary production, and zooplankton changes, these oil sands lake ecosystems have entered new ecological states completely distinct from those of previous centuries.
“We’re not saying these are poisonous ponds. But it’s going to get worse. It’s not too late but the trend is not looking good,” as the study’s lead author, John P. Smol, a professor of biology at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario, said in the New York Times. The wildlife ponds have become as contaminated as those in urban areas, he also noted.
The results of the Canadian scientists’ study make it even more clear why we need to stop the construction of the Keystone XL Pipeline which is to transport oil down through the western U.S. to refineries along the Gulf Coast. Who knows what damage the pipeline could do to so many lakes, ponds and other freshwater sources; to our flora and fauna, to us?