On Campus

Alberta scientist links crude oil to fish deformities

Researchers oppose closure of Experimental Lakes Area

There appear to be “remarkable similarities” between fish deformities found downstream from Alberta’s oilsands and those observed after the Exxon Valdez oil spill in Alaska and after Florida’s Deepwater Horizon disaster, says a renowned ecologist.

David Schindler of the University of Alberta has written an open letter to two federal cabinet ministers pointing out the recent research findings from scientists as far afield as the Gulf of Mexico.

“Given the parallels in the cases from various locations, it seems likely that some chemical or suite of chemicals in crude oil is causing the malformations,” Schindler wrote.

He’s proposing that Canada take the lead in researching the issue by isolating the various chemical compounds and introducing them to fish stocks in a controlled setting.

And Schindler says the federal Experimental Lakes Area — which has been shut down by Ottawa for a savings of about $2 million annually — is the ideal natural laboratory for the work.

In a letter Wednesday to Fisheries Minister Keith Ashfield and Environment Minister Peter Kent — copied to a number of U.S. scientists and some news media — Schindler praised the monitoring work of government scientists in the Athabaska River.

But he said such monitoring can’t possibly determine which chemicals may be affecting aquatic life due to the “complex chemical soup” found downstream from industrial oil sands development.

What’s required, the scientist said, “would be whole ecosystem experiments where small amounts of selected chemicals are applied to whole lakes, and the effects determined on several key species in the food chain.”

It’s tailor-made for the federal Experimental Lakes Area in northwestern Ontario, a remote region of 58 pristine lakes that have been used since 1968 for groundbreaking freshwater studies on everything from nutrient-loading and mercury exposure to acid rain.

The Harper government announced last year it was closing the world-renowned facility as a cost-saving measure — although insiders say the operating cost of the facility is only $600,000 annually, of which a third comes back in user fees.

Fully funded independent researchers have been refused access to the site to continue their continuing research this summer, although Ottawa is in negotiations with the province of Ontario and other parties to transfer management.

Linking the closure of the Experimental Lakes Area — a cause celebre among Canada’s scientific research community and environmentalists — with oil sands pollution is a potentially toxic political mix for the government.

Activists have already claimed that climate-change research at the ELA is the real reason the Conservatives closed the facility.

A spokeswoman for Fisheries Minister Ashfield did not directly address Schindler’s proposal when reached for comment, but said in an email that “the government continues to actively work towards establishing a new operator for the ELA site so that research there can continue.”

Erin Filliter added that “freshwater science continues to be conducted across Canada at multiple facilities which more than adequately meets the needs of government research.”

Similarly, Rob Taylor at Environment Canada said by email that “Minister Kent is very engaged in the environmental monitoring of the oilsands region.”

“The Canada-Alberta joint scientific monitoring program has been put in place to study any impact on air quality, water quality and biodiversity,” said Taylor.

Studies on the environmental impact of oil-sands development have been accelerating in recent years.

In January, federally funded research, published in the American journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, found that levels of toxic hydrocarbons in six lakes in the oilsands region are between 2 1/2 and 23 times what they were before the mines were built.

A report on Athabasca River sediment published in 2011 concluded hydrocarbons had increased by 40 per cent between 1999 and 2005.

And in 2010, Schindler’s work with the University of Alberta found that industry was releasing heavy metals and hydrocarbons at toxic levels equivalent to a major oil spill every year.

—Bruce Cheadle