The oilsands industry is boosting the amount of toxic metals in the Athabasca River, as well as in the area surrounding the plant sites, University of Alberta aquatics ecologist David Schindler told Fort Chipewyan residents on Monday.
Schindler flew to the northeastern community to fulfil a promise he made to present them with his latest study before it was released to the general public.
Contrary to what government and industry says, not all the toxic metals in the river are from natural sources, he said Tuesday.
The research, which is still in a pre-publication review process, is the second part of a larger study being conducted by Schindler and colleagues. The first results were released last December. They showed that a class of chemicals called polycyclic aromatic compounds, some of which are known carcinogens, were being released into the air on airborne particles from plant stacks and dusty mine sites and through run-off from developed sites. Heavy metals are being released in the same way.
"It includes almost every toxic trace metal on the periodic table," Schindler said.
His talk in Fort Chipewyan focused on mercury, arsenic and lead, but most of the elements on the U.S. Environmental Protection Authority's list of priority pollutants were high, he said, including antimony, beryllium, cadmium, copper, nickel, selenium, silver, thallium and zinc. They were highest near industrial development, decreasing slowly downstream. Many metals were still significantly above background levels in the Athabasca delta and up to two times above background at one spot in Lake Athabasca, near Fort Chipewyan.
The provincial government disputes that industry is adding significantly to the load of heavy metals. The river naturally contains a lot of heavy metals, says Preston McEachern, Alberta Environment section head of science, research and innovation. Studies show that virtually every metal increases steadily in concentration as you proceed downstream from the foothills through Alberta, he said.
McEachern said what's important is to look at trends. There have been some increases in some metals which they believe is related to the drier weather. During dry conditions, groundwater, which contains more metals than run-off, contributes more water to the overall flow.
He said the government is working with industry to try to reduce the amount of water that flows through settling ponds during big storms, before the metal-carrying particles have time to settle.
"The key critical piece of all this is that in the Athabasca River downstream of the oilsands we don't have guideline exceedances for metals," he said. "Not to be too cavalier about it, but you do have to put it into context. This is not posing a threat at the current time."
Schindler saw no confidence in that assessment at the community meeting in Fort Chipewyan. And neither did Dr. Gina Solomon, a medical doctor and senior scientist with the U.S. Natural Resources Defense Council who was invited by the community to provide her thoughts on the Alberta Cancer Board study delivered in February 2009.
The Alberta government put out a news release at the time saying levels of the rare cancer cholangiocarcinoma are not higher than expected in Fort Chipewyan.
Solomon said this gives a misleading impression because cholangiocarcinoma is a type of bile-duct cancer, and there were, overall, a higher than expected number of bile-duct cancers in the report.
She was also interested to note that many of the kinds of cancers that were elevated in that study are not the cancers typically associated with lifestyle factors, such as diet or smoking.
"In fact, when you look through the scientific literature on the specific cancers that were high, what you keep seeing is links to hydrocarbons and petroleum products in the scientific studies. That's the case for the leukemias and lymphomas, as well as for the bile-duct cancer and for the soft-tissue sarcomas, which is also an extremely rare cancer. I've practised medicine for 20 years and I've never seen a soft-tissue sarcoma."
Both Schindler and Solomon support calls from the community for further research to figure out if the higher levels of contaminants are causing increased illness.
Schindler said several people stood up at the meeting and said they'd been recently diagnosed with cancer.
Solomon said her biggest concern is the potential contaminants in the food chain. She said she would test fish, moose meat and ducks to see if toxic chemicals and metals have accumulated in them, which would put the community members at risk.