Dr. David Schindler: Tar Sands Science “Shoddy”, “Must Change”

Dr. David Schindler: Tar Sands Science “Shoddy”, “Must Change” by Carol Linnitt, November 22, 2012, desmogblog
If you ask an Environment Canada media spokesperson about contamination resulting from tar sands operations, they will not tell you the federal government has failed to adequately monitor the mega-project’s effects on water. They most certainly will not say outright that the federal government has failed to monitor the long term or cumulative environmental effects of the world’s largest industrial project. They won’t say it, but not because it isn’t the case.  The tar sands are contaminating hundreds of kilometres of land in northern Alberta with cancer-causing contaminants and neurotoxins. And although federal scientists have confirmed this, they are prevented from sharing information about their research with the media. In fact, if a journalist wants to approach a public servant scientist these days, he or she is required to follow the federal ministry’s media relations protocol, one which strictly limits the media’s access to scientists, sees scientists media trained by communications professionals who coach them on their answers, determine beforehand which questions can be asked or answered, and monitor the interaction to ensure federal employees stay within the preordained parameters. The result is an overly-monitored process that causes burdensome delays in media-scientist interactions. The overwhelming consequence is that the media has stopped talking to the country’s national scientists.  But University of Alberta scientist Dr. David Schindler is ready and willing to pick up the slack, especially after Environment Canada federal scientists recently presented findings that vindicated years of Schindler’s contentious research exposing the negative effects of tar sands production on local waterways and aquatic species.

According to Schindler, the rapid expansion of the tar sands is not based on valid science: “Both background studies and environmental impact assessments have been shoddy, and could not really even be called science. This must change,” he told DeSmog.

Federal scientists Jane Kirk, David Muir and Joanne Parrott presented official Environment Canada findings two weeks ago at a conference in California that confirmed tar sands related contaminants are not only polluting waterways in the immediate region, but in pristine areas over 100 kilometres away, and with contaminants – polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons – known to cause cancer in humans. The research team also discovered contaminants carried in snowfall are transporting the toxins to tributaries where hatchlings spend their early days. Laboratory tests showed snow melt is fatal to young minnows.

The federal scientists’ findings have given new strength to the overshadowed research of Schindler, who concluded years ago that further monitoring and scientific studies were immediately necessary to ensure adequate protection of the local wildlife, fish species and communities that live off the land.  One such community is located in Fort Chipewyan, located 220 kilometers downstream of the tar sands on the shores of Lake Athabasca. Fort Chipewyan is also home to the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation, a community that lives off the land, trapping, hunting and fishing year round. No federal studies have researched contamination in furbearing mammals living near the tar sands, although species decline – as is evident in the disappearance of caribou – is becoming an increasing problem.

In 2003 and 2004, the public was shocked to hear that high levels of rare colon and bile-duct cancers plagued the community of Fort Chipewyan. Family physician John O’Connor, who discovered the problem, was charged with professional misconductin 2007 by Health Canada. The federal body accused the practitioner of causing ‘undue alarm’ in the community and subsequently blocked O’Connor’s access to patient files. The Alberta Cancer Board confirmed in 2008 that higher than normal rates of rare cancer were present in the small community. The government refused to remove the charge of alarmism from O’Connor’s file until late 2009, despite express wishes from the residents of Fort Chipewyan to have the accusation dropped.

But Dr. O’Connor is not the only cautious voice to receive heavy-handed treatment from the government when it comes to unwanted information regarding the tar sands. Dr. Schindler’s findings regarding contamination originating from the tar sands was publicly called into question by the provincial government who accused Schindler of scientific bias. At the time the provincial government claimed contaminants in the watershed were naturally occurring.

The recent release of federal science confirming Schindler’s research has reignited concerns over the safety of wildlife, aquatic species and communities living in the massive contamination zone surrounding tar sands operations. It has also renewed calls for further study into deformed fish surfacing in Lake Athabasca.

DeSmog posed five questions to Dr. Schindler. What he had to say was surprisingly candid, given the tight-lipped disposition of federal scientists and the absence of powerful scientific voices in mainstream media.

1. Is there a relation between deformed fish in Lake Athabasca and the recently-released Environment Canada studies that have found tar sands related contaminants in water?

It is impossible to say with certainty. Earlier studies by Environment Canada and Queen’s University scientists showed that fish eggs hatched on bitumen contaminated sediments had high mortalities, and that the few survivors had malformations, which were described as like those observed in adult fish caught near Fort Chipewyan. The abstract by Parrott et al. also shows that when contaminated snow melts and runs off, it is toxic. I think a connection is very probable. Note that there are similar incidences of fish malformations downstream of polluted sites in the Great Lakes Basin, and downstream of Superfund sites.

2. Have industry and government done an adequate job of ensuring the health of the local landscape, wildlife and communities in the region surrounding the tar sands?

Absolutely not. Monitoring studies by RAMP [Regional Aquatics and Monitoring Program] and Alberta Environment have been poorly done, according to recent panel reports. A health study of Fort Chipewyan was recommended in the final report of the Northern River Basins study in 1996, and it has still not been done. Caribou are in decline, and probably not recoverable. Many predatory mammals and boreal song birds are also in decline.

3. Has environmental monitoring been in place to ensure local First Nations, who live off the land and water, are safe in doing so?

No. The studies that have been done have been very poor, using poor statistical designs, inadequate sampling, and chemical methods with poor limits of detection.

4. Is there any relation between unhealthy fish and elevated rates of cancer in Fort Chipewyan? If people are eating fish that have been exposed to high levels of priority contaminants (like methyl mercury), could that affect the health of those individuals? What about repeated exposure for those individuals who are eating the fish, local game, and drinking the water?

This is impossible to tell without considerable further study. Mercury is likely not linked to cancer, it is a neurotoxin. Fish have high mercury, but no diagnostic test results have been released for people. The most likely carcinogens are some of the poorly studied polycyclic aromatic compounds.

5. In your opinion have the decisions regarding the rapid expansion of the tar sands been made on sound science?

No. Both background studies and environmental impact assessments have been shoddy, and could not really even be called science. This must change. [Emphasis added]

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