Oil sands polluting Canadian river system: study

Mon Aug 30, 2010 5:31pm EDT
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By Jeffrey Jones

CALGARY, Alberta (Reuters) - Canada's vast oil sands operations are polluting the Athabasca River system, researchers said on Monday, in a report that is bound to fuel the environmental battle over developing the resource.

Contradicting Alberta government assertions that toxins in the watershed occur naturally, the researchers said mercury, arsenic, lead and cadmium are among 13 toxins released into the Athabasca, which flows north through the oil sands operations.

The findings of the study, coauthored by University of Alberta biological scientists Erin Kelly and David Schindler, should be a signal for the Alberta provincial government to consider limits on oil sands development, Schindler said.

"I really think it's time to cut down the expansion until some of those problems and how to reduce them are solved," he said in an interview.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency considers the substances to be priority pollutants, or ones that are toxic in low concentrations.

The environmental impact of developing the oil sands, the biggest reserves of crude outside the Middle East, has been a topic of snowballing controversy around the world. The Alberta government has devoted millions of dollars to defend the multibillion-dollar industry.

The latest research is published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Schindler said the incidence of pollutants in fish is particularly worrisome, as local populations depend on the region's fishery for food.   Continued...

<p>A truck drives down a street at Syncrude's oil tar sands operation near Fort McMurray, Alberta in this May 23, 2006 file photo. REUTERS/Todd Korol/Files</p>