Sick And Deformed Fish Prompt Review Of Oil Sands Environmental Data

By Lloyd Dolha

Deformed fish caught in the Athabasca River

In response to increasing concerns over industrial pollution in the Athabasca River and its connecting waterways, federal Environment Minister Jim Prentice has appointed a blue ribbon independent advisory panel of the nation’s top environemtnal scientists to review the design and management of the area’s environmental systems. “We are determined to develop Canada’s oil sands in a manner that is sustainable and environmentally sensitive,” said Minister Prentice. “This independent review by some of Canada’s most respected scientists is a critical step in ensuring that environmental issues are balanced with economic considerations.”

The adisory panel is mandated to advise the minister on the current state of environmental research and monitoring in the region around Alberta’s oil sands and make recommendations to ensure state-of-the-art monitoring and best practices are implemented. Elizabeth Downswell, current president of the Council of Canadian Academies and former UN Under-Sectretary and Executive Director of the United Nations Environment Program, will chair the panel. Other members include Dr. Peter Dillon, professor of Environmental and Resource Studies at Trent University; Dr. Andrew Miall, holder of the Gordon Stollery Chair in Basin Analysis and Petroleum Geology at the University of Toronto; Dr. Joseph Rasmussen, Canada Research Council Chair of Aquatic Ecosystems and professor of Biological Sciences at the University of Lethbridge; and Dr. John Smol, professor of Biology at Queen’s University and holder of the Canada Council Research Chair in Environmental Change. The six member panel has just 60 days to write their report and make it available to the public on Environment Canda’s website.

Chiefs of the Athabasca area, noted scientists, and health professionals recently shocked the public when they unveiled a display of fish collected from the region’s waters with numerous deformities, lesions, tumours, and cysts. They endorsed the September 16th letter requesting the Harper Tories to fund, plan, and implement a comprehensive long-term fish health monitoring program for the Athabasca River, Delta, and Lake.

The fish displayed at the University of Alberta were collected during a fish sampling campaign on the river and delta in 2008, and between 2009-2010 by local fishers on the delta and lake. Many of the fish on display were caught together in a gillnet set during May 2010. Of the 27 whitefish, turbot, and northern pike collected, seven had lesions, haemorrhages, and crooked spines. Some had bulging eyes.

Dr. David Schindler, professor of Ecology, said the National Pollutant Release Inventory (NPRI) “shows that the oil sands industry is releasing large volumes of airborne pollutants.” The NPRI is Canada’s legislated, publically accessible inventory of pollutant releases to the air, waters, and lands of the nation. Schindler is a widely respected figure in the field of ecosystem ecology. His work has been used in formulating ecologically sound management policy in Canada, the United States, and Europe.

Schindler noted that recent study publications in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences demonstrate that oil sands development releases substances known to be toxic at low concentrations to the Athabasca River and its tributaries. Peer-reviewed papers indicate that spring melt runoff is likely the source of polycyclic aromatic compounds (PAC) and metals. Of the 24 fish species in the river, 19 spawn in the spring or early summer, and embryos of these species are likely present when PAC concentrations are at their highest.

“Deleterious substances have been deposited in the waters in clear violation of the federal Fisheries Act,” stated Schindler. “We feel strongly that the monitoring program should be independent of existing programs, be carried out by the federal government (which is ultimately responsible for the Fisheries Act), and be overseen by an independent steering committee comprised of community members, fishermen, community leadership, federal government scientists, and academic researchers.”

A week earlier, the government of Alberta announced its own committee of independent scientists to review water monitoring data collected from the region. The committee will examine monitoring data and methodology of both government and academic research findings, compare data to historical values in the region, and explain the relevance of any differences and gaps that may exist. “Understanding the impact of the oil sands industry on the watershed of northeastern Alberta is absolutely critical,” said Alberta Environment Minister Rob Renner. “We need to have total and complete assurance in data before we can make decisions on how best to balance environmmental prtotection with development.” The process is expected to be completed by February 2011.

Chief Allan Adam of the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation praised the launch of the two panels for the futute of his people, who have seen their overall health decline in recent years from cancer and other illnesses. “This is what we wanted,” said Chief Adam. “We can’t change things overnight, but at least this is something we can take to the table, and hopefully we’ll be able to work with them in whatever studies are going on. We want to be part of it.”