PERSPECTIVE: Environmental impact of oil sands mining continues to stir controversy

The arguments for and against mining the Athabasca oil sands have always been heated. Now comes a new study gu...



The arguments for and against mining the Athabasca oil sands have always been heated. Now comes a new study guaranteed to raise the rhetoric to fever pitch.

University of Alberta biologists Erin Kelly and David Schindler have studied the level of certain toxins - including cadmium, arsenic, mercury and base metals - in the Athabasca River downstream from where it flows through oil sands leases. They claim that the levels are above federally and provincially allowable limits and call for the Alberta government to consider limiting oil sands development or expansions. Their findings were published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. (

Environmentalists will heartily agree with their conclusions.

The other side of the argument is that the pollutants occur naturally and not as a consequence of mining. The Regional Aquatics Monitoring Program (RAMP), sponsored by the Alberta government and supported by industry, studied the river and came to the opposite conclusion. RAMP reports judge the level of toxins to be similar to what they were before mining began. (

Industry may prefer to agree with these findings.

So now we have studies that say mining the oil sands releases unacceptable levels of toxins into the watershed and that the levels are about the same as they were before mining began. Which is correct?

Personally, I think common sense would say mining (or any activity that disturbs the oil sands) has the potential to release metals that may be present into the environment. The question in my mind is one of degree. By how much does mining increase the levels of toxins? Is it a small amount more than the historical baseline? It is many, many times more?

I am not surprised that there are elevated levels of toxins in the water downstream from the oil sands mines. However, I'm not sure I trust either of these reports to tell the whole story.


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