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Environmental health risks of Alberta oilsands probably underestimated: study

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A tailings pond is pictured at an oilsands mine facility near Fort McMurray, Alta., Tuesday, July 10, 2012. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jeff McIntosh

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A tailings pond is pictured at an oilsands mine facility near Fort McMurray, Alta., Tuesday, July 10, 2012. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jeff McIntosh

EDMONTON - A new study suggests the environmental health risks of oilsands operations in Alberta's Athabasca region have probably been underestimated.

Researchers say emissions of potentially hazardous air pollution that were used in environmental reviews done before approving some projects did not include evaporation from tailings ponds or other sources, such as dust from mining sites.

The study, by the University of Toronto's environmental chemistry research group, looked at reported levels of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAH) — chemicals which can be released into the air, water and soil when bitumen-rich oilsands are mined and processed.

"Our study shows that emissions of PAH estimated in environmental impact assessments conducted to approve developments in the Athabasca oilsands region are likely too low," reads the study published Monday in the U.S. journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

"The potential therefore exists that estimation of future risk to humans and wildlife because of surface mining in the Athabasca oilsands region has been underestimated."

Professor Frank Wania, one of the study's authors, said the results highlight the need for improved accounting of PAH emissions from oilsands operations, especially when more projects are being built or planned in the region.

Using computer models, researchers studied emissions estimates from environmental reports to predict chemical concentrations from direct oilsands industrial activity such as mining, processing and vehicle traffic.

They found the levels were lower than actually measured levels of chemicals in the air recorded in other scientific studies.

Researchers then modified the computer model to factor in estimates of evaporation from oilsands tailing ponds. Predicted concentrations were then much closer to the recorded levels.

They used a third model using concentrations of PAH levels measured by Environment Canada in the region between November 2010 and February 2011.

The results suggest emissions may be two to three times higher than the estimates recorded in project environmental reviews.

Wania said some chemicals pose a potential cancer risk, but nothing imminent.

The concentrations that have been measured in the air in the oilsands region are comparable to a big city such as Toronto.

"It is not that I am raising the red flag here, that we should be very concerned, because we live with these concentrations day in and day out," he said.

"All we are saying is that the basis for the human health risk assessment is flawed."

Environment Canada issued a statement saying it is reviewing the study and can't yet comment on its contents.

Spokesman Mark Johnson said the department considers responsible resource development a priority, adding it has establish extensive monitoring activities in the oilsands and has made progress in studying impacts on air, water, land and wildlife.

Simon Dyer of the Pembina Institute, an environmental policy think-tank, said the study raises questions about tailings ponds and oilsands monitoring.

He said industry has never demonstrated that it is able to effectively deal with tailings waste and the government is not enforcing existing cleanup rules.

"This study provides further evidence that rules need to be enforced and the growth of tailings waste halted," he wrote in an email.

Dyer said governments and regulators need to take the study's findings into account when determining if it is appropriate to approve new projects.

He also said oilsands monitoring needs to be expanded.

The Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers said scientific monitoring, transparency and reporting processes are crucial to understanding industrial impacts and balancing the need for environmental protection, economic growth and secure reliable energy supplies.

Geraldine Anderson, an association spokeswoman, noted the federal and Alberta governments are working together to improve oilsands monitoring.

"This U of T study takes existing data and uses computer modeling to make suggestions," Anderson wrote in an email.

"As the study notes, there are major efforts under way through JOSM (joint oil sands monitoring) to develop improved models, a better understanding of pathways, and a better understanding of the limits of existing data.

"Science-based research is in everybody's best interest because it helps achieve the goal of long-term, responsible resource development.”

Wania said the team's research was funded by the university. He said Environment Canada is now providing money for more research to follow up on the findings.

A report published last year in the same journal found that oilsands development is polluting surrounding lakes in northern Alberta.

The federally funded research by some of Canada's top scientists found levels of toxic hydrocarbons in six lakes between 2 1/2 and 23 times what they were before the mines were built.

The paper said while overall toxin levels remain low, trends aren't good and some lakes are already approaching warning levels.

It said the timing of the contamination and its chemical makeup point to industrial sources.

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