Research shows environmental concerns need to be taken seriously
A new study of toxic hydrocarbon content in northern Alberta lakes suggests there is good reason to be concerned about the oilsands industry's contribution to contamination of northern waterways.
The research seems to provide strong new evidence bolstering the need to pay attention to environmental issues in the region.
While industry and government have long held to the view that hydrocarbons found in bodies of water near oilsands development could be the result of naturally eroding bitumen deposits, one of the study's co-authors says the latest research has closed the door on that argument.
"This shows very conclusively that at least in the lakes we looked at, we cannot see any way we can attribute this to natural causes," John Smol, a biologist at Queen's University in Kingston, Ont., said in a Canadian Press story in Tuesday's Herald.
The federally funded research, conducted by some of the country's top scientists, was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, a prestigious U.S. journal. The study found that six lakes in northern Alberta's oilsands area have toxic hydrocarbon levels ranging from 2 1/2 to 23 times what they were before oilsands development began there.
According to the research, those levels of toxins began increasing in the late 1960s, matching up closely with the timeline of oilsands development. In addition, greater toxin increases were found in lakes downwind of oilsands mines than upwind.
Countering any argument that the increases were natural, the scientists found that hydrocarbon levels linked to natural processes such as forest fires had actually decreased during that time.
It seems to point the finger clearly at the oilsands industry as the cause of these toxic increases in northern Alberta lakes, which shouldn't come as a surprise. It's to be expected that this kind of extensive industrial development is going to have an effect on the environment.
What the research does is whack the ball back into the government's court to take environmental issues seriously with respect to commercial development. The government could attempt to downplay or dismiss the research, but that kind of denial would be unproductive. Better to accept the evidence and get serious about trying to mitigate the environmental consequences of oilsands development, because we know the development will continue. It's too important to Alberta's economy to think the government is going to ban it for the good of the environment. Avid environmentalists might think that's just what should happen, but we all know that would be a far-fetched dream.
Oilsands development is here to stay for the foreseeable future because Alberta - and Albertans - depend on the revenue it generates. The best we can hope is that government and industry will work together to try to lessen the effects on the environment - because the evidence clearly shows it does affect the environment.
Comment on this editorial online at www.lethbridgeherald.com/