New Study Shows Mercury Levels On the Rise in Athabasca Area

Mon, 2013-10-21 14:03Erika Thorkelson
Erika Thorkelson's picture

New Study Shows Mercury Levels On the Rise in Athabasca Area

Mercury levels rising in Northern Alberta tar sands

A study has found evidence of rising mercury levels downstream from Northern Alberta’s oil sands extraction plants.

Researchers collected gull and tern eggs from nests in various locations around Alberta over several years. Eggs collected in the Athabasca Lake area, downstream of oil sands' development and refineries, showed much higher levels of mercury than those collected nearer to Calgary.

The Joint Oil Sands Monitoring (JOSM) Program, a partnership between federal and provincial governments, commissioned the peer-reviewed study, but it has yet to appear on their online portal. The Environmental Science and Technology Journal released the study online this September.

A similar study in 2011 by the same authors also found mercury levels in gulls from the Lake Athabasca area showed a 40% increase from 1977 to 2009.

The authors of both studies were reticent to make a direct connection between the eggs' proximity to oil sands operations and increased levels of mercury, saying more study is required to find the exact cause. “We can’t link the mercury levels we’re seeing in these bird eggs specifically to oil sands. Certainly that’s one possibility, but there are other possibilities as well,” author Dr. Hebert told the Globe & Mail. Other possible factors include mercury pollution from coal power plants in Asia.

In 2010, 824 kg of mercury were amongst the toxic materials found in oil sands tailings ponds, according to data from the National Pollutant Release Inventory compiled by the Pembina Institute. Between 2006 and 2010 the amount of mercury added to tailings ponds rose 80 per cent.

In June of this year, Alberta’s Energy Resources Conservation Board found that several oil sands companies weren’t hitting their targets for reducing toxic tailings ponds.

Neither article concludes that wildlife in the area are currently adversely affected by the mercury levels, but if those levels continue to rise, the results could be very serious.

Mercury is a bioaccumulative toxin, meaning it accumulates in the body of an organism for its entire lifespan. Bioaccumulated toxins are also passed up the food chain, leading to higher levels of toxins in more apex predators. Because the Peace-Athabasca Delta is an international staging area for wildlife, the mercury that birds ingest in the region could be spread through food chains all over the world.

Mercury poisoning can have devastating long-term effects on both humans and wildlife. A recent study by Japanese researcher Doctor Masazumi Harada found that two First Nations communities in Ontario that suffered mercury poisoning from nearby pulp and paper mills are still feeling the impacts nearly 50 years later.

Earlier this month, the government of Canada was one of 140 countries to sign the Minamata Treaty, a legally binding international agreement aimed at reducing mercury levels worldwide. Upon signing, Environment Minister Leona Aglukkaq acknowledged the global nature of the issue in an official statement.

Signing this treaty reinforces Canada’s commitment to protecting the Arctic ecosystem, the health of our indigenous peoples, Northerners and the global population,” said Aglukkaq, who is also Minister of the Canadian Northern Economic Development Agency and Minister for the Arctic Council.

Mary Richardson, a spokesperson for the Keepers of the Athabasca, worries that the needs of the oil sands industry will outweigh Canada’s global commitments in this area, just as they did with tailings ponds. “Mercury levels have been going down in Canada for the last forty years and now it appears they’re going up in the tar sands area, which is absolutely unacceptable,” she said.

A professor emeritus in philosophy from the University of Athabasca, Richardson has been involved with environmental groups based in the region for more than 20 years. This year, she was tapped to be part of an environmental non-governmental organization advisory committee for the JOSM, but has only been called to one meeting to date and does not speak on the organization’s behalf.

This article is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to what we need to know,” says Richardson. “The eggs were presumably analysed for a lot of other contaminants, but research has not been published for those levels.”

She would like to see numbers for hydrocarbons, arsenic, and other heavy metals, just to name a few of the toxic substances that are related to oil sands extraction.

Still, she is cautiously optimistic about the study, saying that being published in an independent, peer-reviewed journal lends it and the JOSM credibility. “My view is that this article does represent credible science done on the subject,” she says. “The article is careful both in its description of the analysis and in its conclusions.”

Transparency, she believes, is key to the process. “That’s why this program [the JOSM] is important,” she continues. “If in fact the results are open and there’s enough pressure from concerned members of the public, then perhaps something can be done.”

Image Credit: p.Gordon via flickr.

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oilsands, carbon emissions

This is a guest post by Andrew Leach, Enbridge Professor of Energy Policy at the University of Alberta. The article originally appeared in Maclean's magazine and is republished here with permission.

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