An oil sands workers with a handful of black gold An oil sands workers with a handful of black gold
Canada’s oil sands developments are one of the world’s largest industrial projects. Currently, the expansive projects are estimated to occupy an area about the size of Greece, and development in the area continues to grow. While on the surface, these industrial development projects may seem economically beneficial, there are growing concerns about the associated costs.

David Schindler, Killam Memorial Chair and Professor of Ecology at the University of Alberta, set out to address these concerns in a talk he gave at University College last Tuesday. He pointed to the arguably less visible, and more long-term effects of the oil sands projects. “The rapid rate at which this development is occurring means more environmental impacts without proper assessment,” Schindler stated.

For Schindler, there are a number of costs associated with the oil sands developments which he feels have typically been downplayed in promotional advertising by the oil industry. “None of it is true,” he said, referring to the advertising campaigns which promote the oil sands projects as having only positive outcomes and implications. According to Schindler, environmental impacts have continued to be misrepresented or ignored altogether.

For example, the tailing ponds that store industrial by-products and waste are of primary concern due to their proximity to waterways. As Schindler explained, “Runoff from disturbed watersheds contaminates receiving rivers.” As a result, industrial runoff and other toxins then continue to seep into open waterways.

Through their research, Schindler and his team have demonstrated the environmental effects of the presence of runoff in the water systems. Increased instances of mercury, thallium, chromium, beryllium, cooper and other toxins were identified in the Athabasca. These findings have contradicted assertions by the Albertan government that toxins in the water system were naturally occurring. Further, there are worrisome environmental implications for species exposed to these toxins. Instances of fish deformities have become more common; fish are more likely now to be caught having tumors, two tails, abnormal eye sizes and other disfigurements. “Although not highly contaminated, if you saw that fish on a shelf in Safeway you wouldn’t buy it,” commented Schindler.

In Fort Chipewyan, a village just downstream from the oil sands, dozens of cases of rare forms of cancers have emerged in recent years, creating great social unease and unrest. However, Schindler admitted, “these findings were based on a small number of cases and could be due to chance.”

Regardless, Schindler’s findings present new environmental concerns and offer evidence which contradicts the information currently in official Albertan government documentation, which has led Schindler to suggest that the current monitoring system is inadequate.

“We don’t see any protections in place,” elaborated Professor Emily Gilbert, head of the Canadian Studies Department at the University of Toronto. Many experts agree that there are simply not enough mechanisms in place to provide proper supervision and monitoring of the oil sands operations. Government organizations at both the provincial and federal level are not adequately funded, and are thus ill-equipped to successfully monitor development and keep companies in check.

Despite these cautions from scientists and scholars, the oil industry and government officials have repeatedly refused to acknowledge the environmental implications, identifying the oil sands as an economic marvel and a solution for North America’s future energy crisis.

Thus, this issue has become polarized - either protect the environment or continue to promote economic growth. So far economic prosperity has dominated, but as environmental concerns continues to increase, perhaps there will be a shifting priorities. Only time will tell.

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  • Subtitle: Ecology prof addresses costs of Canada's oil sands developments
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