EDMONTON - An independent study suggests pollution from Alberta's oilsands is nearly five times greater and twice as widespread as industry figures say.
The study says toxic emissions from the controversial industry are equal to a major oil spill occurring every year. Government and industry officials say contamination in area soils and rivers is natural, but the report links it firmly to oilsands mining.
"We found rather massive inputs of toxic organic compounds by the oilsands industry to the Athabasca River and its tributaries," said David Schindler, a co-author of the study. "The major contribution to the river was from industry."
The study, published Monday in the U.S.-based Proceedings of National Academy of Science, also takes direct aim at Alberta's monitoring program.
"Our study confirms the serious defects of the (regional aquatic monitoring program)," it says. "More than 10 years of inconsistent sampling design, inadequate statistical power and monitoring-insensitive responses have missed major sources of (contamination) to the Athabasca watershed."
Government officials questioned the report's conclusions.
Contaminants are more concentrated near oilsands facilities because that's where the bitumen deposits are most concentrated, said Alberta Environment scientist Preston McEachern.
"The mines are located where they are because they're the richest part of the bitumen deposits," he said.
As well, he added, the monitoring program in question is only intended to provide broad, regional information. Alberta relies on specifics from industry, audited by provincial inspectors, for more detailed data.
The report is the latest to question official figures and point out the industry's environmental costs - from acid rain to reduced songbird populations.
In the summer of 2008, Schindler's team set up monitoring stations on the Athabasca and several of its tributaries. Some stations were upstream of both the oilsands and facilities, others were in the middle of the bitumen deposits but upstream of industry and still others were downstream of both.
It found petrochemical concentrations did not increase until the streams flowed past oilsands facilities, especially when they flowed past new construction.
"We always found that the major contribution to the river was from industry," Schindler said.
Researchers also took snow samples from similar locations earlier that spring.
They found deposits of bitumen particulates within a 50-kilometre radius around Suncor and Syncrude's upgraders - twice the previous distance estimate. The deposits were "substantial" and enough to form an oily slick on the snow when it was melted.
"The close association of deposition with proximity to the upgrading facilities suggests they are the primary source," says the report.
In all, the study estimates about 34,000 tonnes of particulates are falling every year near Suncor's and Syncrude's facilities, which were designated as the centre of development. Company figures total just over 6,000 tonnes.
The study calculates those particles carry 3.5 tonnes of raw bitumen and carcinogenic polycyclic aromatic compounds (PAC).
"This amount of bitumen released in a pulse would be equivalent to a major oil spill, repeated annually," the report says.
McEachern said the province is aware that some contamination comes from airborne particles. But he suggested little of it finds its way into rivers and most of it breaks down in the soil.
"It is not directly entering surface waters. You're getting some of this into soil and it sits there - a lot of (it) does degrade."
McEachern said comparing airborne contamination to an annual oil spill is an exaggeration.
Schindler said the total concentration of pollutants, measured in parts per trillion, remains low in both soil and water, although there's already enough to be toxic to some fish embryos.
He pointed out many of the compounds don't break down and gradually accumulate wherever they land.
Health implications for downstream communities are uncertain, Schindler said. Researchers weren't able to learn what happened as far downstream as Fort Chipewyan, where residents have long complained of high cancer rates.
However, the report's main conclusion is clear.
"The oilsands industry is a far greater source of regional PAC contamination than previously realized ... The existing (regional aquatic monitoring program) must be redesigned with more scientific and technical oversight."
The report is the latest to criticize environmental monitoring in the oilsands.
Other studies suggest that greenhouse gas emissions from the oilsands are being underestimated by nearly a quarter. One paper blamed blamed increased soil acidification on the industry.
U.S. researchers have said oilsands mines, roads and other facilities in the area are destroying so much bird habitat that up to 166 million fewer songbirds could be flying North American skies within 50 years.