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Punch, Counterpunch on Tar Sands Public Health Impacts

February 25, 2012

The Great Plains Tar Sands Pipelines blog hasn’t published much about the national and international controversy raging over tar sands, oil sands, dirty versus clean fuels, etc.  Plains Justice became involved in this issue when North Dakota farmers began to call us for help as the Keystone I pipeline was sited across them, often against their wishes with bullying tactics by TransCanada.  We got more involved when South Dakotans started to call about Keystone I, and then Keystone XL was proposed and Nebraskans, Montanans, Oklahomans and Texans started to call too (where are you Kansas?).  We are all about what’s going on along the pipeline routes, in the pipeline states, with people directly affected in our region.  We’re Plains Justice.

This doesn’t mean that we need to stick our heads in a hole about what’s at the end of the pipeline.  In December 2010, a “Royal Society of Canada Expert Panel” released a report titled Environmental and Health Impacts of Canada’s Oil Sands Industry.  The Royal Society of Canada: the Academies of Arts, Humanities and Sciences of Canada (RSC):

was established under an Act of Parliament in 1882 as the senior Canadian collegium of distinguished scholars, artists and scientists. The primary objective of the Society is to promote learning and research in the arts, the humanities, and the social and natural sciences. As a national, bilingual organization consisting of over 2000 Fellows and over 40 Institutional Members from every province, the RSC is Canada’s National Academy.

The study concluded, among expressions of concern about reclamation costs, that:

(t)here is currently no credible evidence of environmental contaminant exposures from oil sands reaching Fort Chipweyan (sic) at levels expected to cause elevated human cancer rates.  More monitoring focused on human contaminant exposures is needed to address First Nation and community concerns.

A new analysis performed without funding by Alberta scientist Kevin Timoney and published in the Iowa-based Environmental Science and Technology journal offers the following criticisms of the RSC report:

The RSC report provided a simplistic and incomplete treatment of how industrial activities may impact the aquatic environment. Impacts omitted or reviewed inadequately included licensed discharges to water, air, and land; leaks and spills of bitumen, oil, wastewater, and other compounds; and habitat disturbance and loss. The problem of declining river flows was inadequately addressed. Because many rivers in northern Alberta are experiencing decades-long trends of declining discharge, relevant, preindustrial “baseline” discharges do not exist for many rivers, including the major water source for the region, the lower Athabasca River. Regional water scarcity may come to threaten ecosystems and society and development of bitumen resources.

The consideration of in-stream flow needs was out of date and superficial. The RSC did not consider the current water management framework and the potential biological implications of withdrawing water at times of low discharge, nor did it incorporate the federal scientific evaluation of the water management framework(3) that concluded that the climate change analysis underestimated changes in minimum flows and that water withdrawals under certain low flow conditions would result in fish habitat losses and in loss of productive capacity of the lower Athabasca River. It was imprudent for the RSC to conclude that the viability of the Athabasca River ecosystem is not threatened by industrial water withdrawals.

The RSC report was in error when it stated issues of seepage could be clarified if results from annual environmental assessment reporting were made publicly available. Annual environmental assessment reports have been publicly available for years, many of which are posted online. Those reports contain data on seepage rates, water chemistry, emissions, and exceedances that would have added materially to the quality of the RSC review.

Effects of tailings ponds on wildlife received inadequate attention. There was no review of relevant scientific literature. The presence of extensive tailings ponds along an internationally significant bird migration corridor has long been known to pose threats to migratory and resident birds. Although the RSC report as a whole touched on the issue of habitat loss, little effort was made to quantify the effect on wildlife populations.

Uncritical acceptance of Regional Aquatic Monitoring Program (RAMP) findings, given the documented inability of RAMP to assess change,(4) undermined the credibility of the RSC report. The RSC report downplayed the significance of tailings seepage and ignored important information such as data on groundwater contaminant plumes. Tailings seepage is a large and complex problem whose significance cannot be dismissed because of uncertainties.

The consideration of downstream effects was marred by mis-reporting or misunderstanding of various studies and a failure to review relevant information. Use of outdated discharge data undermined the discussion of water quantity and water quality issues. A more complete evaluation of industrial emissions would have improved the breadth and utility of the RSC assessment. The literature review on surface water quality, impacts on aquatic organisms and fisheries, and potential pathways to human exposure was superficial. The paucity of information on the impacts of chemicals on the biota was noteworthy. Dismissal of downstream public health concerns was not justified given the superficial treatment of the data and the considerable remaining unknowns such as the need to quantify total exposure to contaminants and to explain the increased rates of cancers and other diseases in the downstream community of Fort Chipewyan. The report’s skepticism about contamination was not based on a thorough or careful analysis.

Timoney suggests that the RSC panel should have released a draft version of its report for review to avoid the errors and omissions he found.

There’s an important debate going on about how Canada handles this vast extraction project.  It would be interesting to hear from people who read this blog about what you’d like to see here.  Are broader tar sands questions important to you?

One Comment leave one →
  1. Bob Lefurgey permalink
    February 25, 2012 2:38 pm


    Nice to see that South of the Border you are actually acknowleging our existence…After all we are the largest trading partner the US has…We could go on on for days going point and counterpoint on reports saying one thing or the other…Why dont you actually take a look at the other end of the pipeline…What you will find is one of the largest oil plays in the world…People Ive talked to who are currently working up there say that right now the tar sands or oilsands (As an Albertan I dont really care what you call it) is doubling in size…The ammount actually being mined is relatively small and is federally legislated that it has to be reclaimed and actually is…The U of A (University of Alberta) and the Uof C(University of Calgary) hve been dedicating large ammounts of resources solving Energy issues for decades…The tar sands stretches the length of the provivince and 90% of it is not minable…A term you might want to familiarize yourself with is SAGD…Saskatchewan has as much if not more oil sands than Alberta..We truly are blessed with an abundance of resources and we are proud of it..Royal Dutch Shell from Holland , Total from France, Statoil from Norway as well as China and 100 + more are here…Imperial Oil/Exon are spending another Billion plus next year in Cold Lake….Alberta alone has been drilling wells at a rate of 6,000 to 13,000 wells per year for decades, and have over 196,000 fracs with over 100,000km of pipeline in the ground…Tree Huggers like to call it Carpet Bombing…I have gas wells within several hundred feet of my acreage with hundreds more within several miles of where I live…They are well regulated and hardly know they are there…Saskatchewan has the largest Uranium deposits in the world. Currently they provide over 26% of the worlds supply…There are other megaprojects going on within a couple hundred miles of your border…5 new Potash mines are scheduled for Southern Saskatchewan in the coming years that aproach the scale of the oilsands… There is currently a diamond rush going on in the territories…Take a look at Diavik…One of my sons is a steel worker currently working in Northern BC…He has enough work to last him for 7 years working the gas projects there…The pipelines for that and the LNG port facilities are already being built in Kitimat…Alberta is currently short 196,000 workers and Saskatchewan is shy 100,000 workers…BC (British Columbia) is in the same boat..
    Yes there is a lot going on at the end of the pipeline…It is the primary reason we are at the top of the G8 countries and not in the rat hole you are in in the US or Europe for that matter…Oh I forgot to tell you we have over 3/4 of the worlds fresh water…And yes I value water as being being equally or more important than oil as do most of us that live here……Given the narrow view that Enviro groups would lead you to believe Alberta is a pretty beautiful place and our air is fresh and clean…Ask anybody that visits here including progressive hollywod stars and starlets…Alberta is fantanstic to see…Check out Banff or Lake Louise…There are large mines, forestry, drilling and agriculture going on all around them…You should really make an effort to see what is really up here… We will decide what we do with our resources and not you…Again, if you dont want it dont buy it…Thanks to to XL, BSE and Softwood Lumber we are finally developing other markets…

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