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Death by a thousand cuts

A scientific study has now confirmed what many suspected already and what others considered painfully – morbidly – obvious: the tar sand operations in Alberta, Canada, are releasing high levels of pollutants into the Athabasca river basin at levels that are much higher than government and industry have stated.

Published in the prestigious journal the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the new analysis by Professor David Schindler of the University of Alberta concludes that pollution from the tar sands is up to five times higher than industry figures state.

That is not surprising. But in the unostentatious language of science, other poignant messages can be easy to miss. Reading between the lines of the final sentences in the abstract leads to a crucial conclusion: ‘These results indicate that major changes are needed to the way that environmental impacts of oil sands development are monitored and managed.’ If you have the time – and the expertise – to read through to the conclusion, you will come to a more detailed explanation:

 ‘Our study confirms the serious defects of the [the government watershed monitoring system]. More than 10 years of inconsistent sampling design, inadequate statistical power, and monitoring-insensitive responses have missed major sources of [petrochemical pollution] to the watershed … The existing [programme] must be redesigned with more scientific and technical oversight.’

In other words: the money, resources and political will required to adequately monitor the Athabasca river basin is desperately needed, and simply isn’t there. 

‘Though it may seem obvious that this pollution is linked to skyrocketing cancer rates in the indigenous community, we need more information – we need that scientific evidence to have the political and legal case to stop the damage,’ says Maude Barlow, National Chairperson of the Council of Canadians and Senior Adviser on Water to the 63rd President of the United Nations General Assembly.

But being able to leverage a legal case is even more difficult in Canada because laws concerning water quality are left up to the provinces, and not the national government, which has led to a ‘mishmash of policies,’ she says.
‘Water protection laws are virtually non-existent in the province of Alberta,’ says Clayton Thomas-Muller, of the Mathias Colomb Cree Nation in nearby Manitoba and a member of the Indigenous Environmental Network.

‘Provincial regulators have effectively handed over monitoring and enforcement to industry. The strongest case for water protection in Canada’s Tar Sands is the recognition and implementation of treaty rights via Aboriginal Law.’ 

But without enough information to show what the river contains, where it comes from and who is responsible, making that legal case will continue to prove difficult. 

Schindler is not the only scientist who thinks we need to gather that information. Garnering far less media attention was a study released earlier this year by Professor Monique Dubé, Canada Research Chair in Aquatic Ecosystem Health Diagnosis, published in the journal Integrated Environmental Assessment and Management. 

She pulled together more than 4 million data point from nine sampling bases, a difficult and novel approach, and wrote that ‘methods that can assess these multiple types of effects over a broad spatial and time scale must be developed’. There are many different refineries operating throughout the basin that are releasing pollution into the river basin, and being able to see who is releasing what, and how this is affecting the region, is currently impossible. 

It may at first blush sound like another obvious and mild conclusion, but she was making an important point.

‘We are only just beginning to evaluate the Athabasca system on a whole watershed scale – I find that alarming,’ she says. ‘We are talking about “death by a thousand cuts”. We really need to focus on the development of integrated assessment and science – a complete rethinking of how we train scientists to work together – because our water resources are under a lot more pressure than people realize, and it’s only going to get worse.’

‘Professor Dubé’s work is extremely important for the world as a whole, as is that of anyone working on how to measure watershed protection and the cumulative effects of multi-source pollution into any watershed,’ says Barlow. ‘We really need to give more credit to those scientists who work on watershed protection.’

Because those scientists are still too few and far between – not just in Canada, but around the world.
It’s not that research into ‘cumulative and multi-source’ pollution is neglected because it requires technological sophistication – to put it bluntly, it’s not rocket science. Establishing a network of water monitoring systems throughout the Athabasca is without a doubt feasible. 

‘We have the science to do this,’ says Dubé. ‘Compared to the economic returns from the tar sands, this is not a financial issue.’

Dubé is certainly not the first scientist to state such an opinion:

‘All of these questions urgently require the precise answers that only extensive research can provide, yet funds for such purposes are pitifully small… If we would divert to constructive research even a small fraction of the money spent each year on the development of ever more toxic sprays, we could find ways to use less dangerous materials and to keep poisons out of our waterways.’

But it wasn’t Barlow, or Dubé, or Schindler, or even Thomas-Muller who wrote that. It was biologist Rachel Carson in the seminal book Silent Spring, writing about the links between the use of pesticides and the death of songbirds – which, as it happens, are also declining in the tar sands. Carson’s book was published almost half a century ago, and still relevant. The times change, but the songs – or lack thereof – stay the same.

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