The Catastrophe of Alberta Oil Sands Development

We are obsessed with scientific proof, best practices, and hard data. We rarely make our decisions based on that, but we do like to dot our ‘i’s and cross our ‘t’s. Sometimes that information is used to justify a political decision. At other times it’s ignored as insufficient to change the status quo (see climate change).

We saw a good example of this phenomenon this week when a report out of Queen’s University gave us scientific evidence of what we already intuit: the Alberta tar sands are an environmental catastrophe.

We learned this week from a study published in PNAS, co-authored by Dr. John Smol, Canadian Research Chair in Environmental Change, that development of the Athabaskan tar sands since the 1960s has adversely affected environmental health. Levels of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) have increased dramatically in lake depositions since bitumen extraction began five decades ago. PAHs are a serious health concern, causing cancer, birth defects, and increased chances of childhood asthma. What is most troubling is that Canadian guidelines for lake sediment (set by the Canadian Council of Ministers of the Environment in 1999) have been exceeded for seven PAHs in the Athabasca region, including ones that are known carcinogens, mutagens, and teratogens. In the case of benz(a)anthracene, chrysene, benzo(a)pyrene, and dibenz(a,h)anthracene – four compounds known to cause cancer – the guidelines have been exceeded for about twenty years.

It will be interesting to see how the federal government reacts to this evidence.

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