Punch, Counterpunch on Tar Sands Public Health Impacts
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?