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How do the tar sands operators get away with polluting the great Athabaska River, despite federal and provincial laws that allegedly protect rivers? By insisting that everything is fine, and that all the pollution is “natural”.

Now, Professor David Schindler has blown their cover, by collecting the kind of data that governments used to do. Will anything change?

Prof. Schindler is one of Canada’s most eminent water scientists. He identified phosphates in detergent as the pollutant choking Lake Erie in the 1960s and acid rain as the cause of fish deaths in the Great Lakes in the 1970s and 1980s. He has received the NSERC Award of Excellence, the $1-million Gerhard Herzberg Canada Gold Medal for Science and Engineering, and the First Stockholm Water Prize as well as many other national and international awards.

The tar sands operators already consume much of the water of the Athabaska, and create giant, toxic tailings ponds. Although the ponds are known to leak pollutants, Alberta has argued that the remaining water is unaffected. By carefully sampling what is happening in the Athabaska watershed, Prof. Schindler has now shown that exploitation of the Alberta tar sands is polluting the river with toxic heavy metals. To put it more politely,

the oil sands industry releases the 13 elements [heavy metals] considered priority pollutants (PPE) under the US  Clean Water Act, via air and water, to the Athabasca River and its watershed. In the 2008 snowpack, all PPE except selenium were greater near oil sands developments than at more remote sites. Bitumen upgraders and local oil sands development were sources of airborne emissions. Concentrations of mercury, nickel, and thallium in winter and all 13 PPE in summer were greater in tributaries with watersheds more disturbed by development than in less disturbed watersheds…. Canada’s or Alberta’s guidelines for the protection of aquatic life were exceeded for seven PPE—cadmium, copper, lead, mercury, nickel, silver, and zinc—in melted snow and/or water collected near or downstream of development.

Fish in the river, we’re told, have become dangerous to eat. Where, given all this, is Environment Canada, the supposed enforcer of the Fisheries Act and the Canadian Environmental Protection Act? They rely on RAMP, an industry-sponsored monitoring program that keeps concluding nothing is wrong. Why? According to Professor Schindler, because they don’t do proper monitoring. He urges that RAMP should be closed immediately and the funds turned over to Environment Canada. Will it happen?

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