A Queen’s biology professor is gaining international attention for his work on a study that proves the contaminating effects of Alberta’s oil sands.
The study’s conclusion — that pollutants can be found in the lakes surrounding the oil sands operations — is a result long-suspected by critics of the industry.
The study, co-authored by Queen’s John Smol, found minor pollution in six lakes 20 to 90 km away from the oil sands of northeastern Alberta.
“The oil sands have been in operation since 1967 and many of us have suspected that they’re polluting, and frankly I don’t think our results are that surprising, but they had to be done,” he said.
The oil sands are comprised of sand or consolidated sandstone mixed with water and clay and steeped in bitumen, a thick form of petroleum.
Approximately 70 per cent of the world’s bitumen’s reserves are in Canada and most of the country’s oil sands are located in northern Alberta’s three major deposits.
Smol noted that one of the contaminants found in Alberta, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAH), is a serious carcinogen.
“If you look at the US government website, they’re one of the top 10 ‘nasties’ of chemicals.”
PAH is a pollutant derived from oil and coal. It can also be caused by human activity, such as through smoking cigarettes or lighting a match, which emit minimal levels of PAH. Cigarette smoke contains numerous carcinogens, including PAH.
While the presence of PAH may not come as a surprise to many familiar with the oil sands, defenders of oil industry practices previously claimed that the levels of PAH in the surrounding environment were natural and not a result of oil sands activity, Smol said.
The study, which Smol co-authored with an Environment Canada researcher, is the first to prove the correlation between the operation of the oil sands and increasing levels of contaminants.
“Two years ago there was a study saying PAHs are higher in snow near the oil sands operation,” Smol said.
“There was a lot of pushback from this industry about this and they’d say ‘yeah it’s high, but it’s always been high, it would have been high a thousand years ago.’”
The team was able to determine through paleolimnology — the reconstruction of the history of inland bodies of water — that the oil sands led to the increase of PAH levels. The levels are now as much as 23 times higher than the levels of 1960, after beginning to increase in the 1970s.
The lake closest to the oil sands contains similar pollutants to an urban lake. Smol said despite the relatively low levels, the concern is that they will continue to rise as the oil industry expands.
“The industry itself is suggesting that within the next 15 years they’re going to expand 150 per cent,” he said, adding that such an expansion could lead to more serious problems.
A spokesperson for the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers, Troy Davies, told the Calgary Herald that the study is being taken seriously, but stressed the current lack of impact on ecology.
“At the end of the day, I think this industry has to support good science and we’ve done that. We think transparency is important and we hope this is something that will reflect in the enhanced monitoring program that we support as well,” Davies told the Herald.
Smol said he’s hopeful the industry will address the issue his discoveries have brought attention to; he noted that among the many articles written about the discovery was a piece in an oil magazine, which admitted the veracity of the study.
“I think this paper is changing a lot of minds,” he said. “I think they can no longer say it’s natural.”