Contaminants in the Athabasca River

A study, carried out by Dr. David Schindler and several of his colleagues from the University of Alberta, found high levels of mercury, lead and arsenic in the Athabasca River. Their findings challenge data found in government reports and are an indication that the tar sands industry has had a significant impact on the Athabasca River. Local fishermen have realized that migratory species such as ducks no longer land where they used to and have even found fish that were deformed or had lumps on them. The report will become available in the scientific journal ‘Proceedings of the National Academy of Science’.

The team has recommended that monitoring must be improved in order to properly assess and control the industry’s impact on the environment. In a press conference on Monday the Edmonton Journal reported Dr. Schindler saying:

“There’s no way industry can be belching out hundreds of kilograms of toxins every year and this not be detectable in the environment unless the monitoring program is totally incompetent.” … All of this is in clear violation of the Fisheries Act. The Fisheries Act is not based on amounts released or concentrations in the river; it just says flatly that there will be no deposition of any deleterious substance to a river or near enough to a river to get into it. Period. … You have to ask where is Environment Canada on all of this? … You have to wonder why do we have money for propaganda and not for proper science? Government has been putting money into their propaganda campaign to tell people everything is OK. I just think that’s not the way democracy should work. If people can see what’s really going on and they still choose to develop in the oilsands that’s democracy. But making people think that everything’s OK when it really isn’t and therefore getting them to agree to this is not the way the government of this country or this province was set up to work.

Both the Regional Aquatics Monitoring Program (RAMP) and Alberta Environment are challenging Dr. Schindler’s results. Alberta Environment would like to look at supplementary data before making comparisons and Fred Kuzmic from RAMP has said that such high levels are ‘associated with naturally occurring compounds’. According to Dr. Schindler, RAMP, an industry led group overseeing the river’s water quality, should be replaced with Environment Canada.