The oil sands of northern Alberta are now the largest supplier of petroleum to the USA and Canada. Large surface mines along the Athabasca River and two upgraders that burn coke to turn raw bitumen into synthetic crude oil are potential sources of contaminants, but the oilsands industry and Alberta government have claimed that all contaminants in the river are from natural bitumen seeps. They have ignored the concerns of downstream aboriginal communities that their food and water were being jeopardized by oil sands development. In 2008, we investigated the above claim.
We found that industry contributed substantial quantities of toxic metals and polycyclic aromatic compounds to the river via airborne fallout and runoff from mine sites. While concentrations in the Athabasca River were low, mining activity is to increase fourfold again in the next 20 years. We found that industry and government monitoring was poorly designed, sometimes relying on outdated methods.
Our results were challenged by governments. Between 2010 and 2011, six expert panels were appointed to examine our claims. All found that previous monitoring of the river was inadequate. As a result, a new, improved monitoring program has been designed, but so far not fully implemented.
A number of issues remain to be resolved. Lands being exploited for oil sands were guaranteed by Treaty 8 of 1899 to support traditional lifestyles “as long as the river flows and the sun shines.” The mining and related activity have caused woodland caribou in the area to decline to the point where even Environment Canada considers populations to be unrecoverable without expensive and questionable habitat restoration. Fish in the river have high frequencies of tumors, spinal deformations and other malformations, so that people are reluctant to eat them. Fish are known to carry high concentrations of mercury, and the role of mining in enhancing mercury concentrations is still not known. Oil sands extraction emits larger quantities of greenhouse gases than conventional oil extraction, and current prospects are that carbon stores in peat will be permanently lost and carbon sequestration by reclaimed landscapes permanently impaired.
Large numbers of foreign workers are currently imported to construct and operate oil sands mines. One must question the sustainability of an economy that permanently alters landscapes, causes losses of critical ecosystem services and biodiversity, and replaces the needs of the country’s First Nations with those of multinational corporations and foreign workers.