If Alberta wants stricter regulations on oilsands pollution, the precedent exists

If Alberta wants stricter regulations on oilsands pollution, the precedent exists by Marty Klinkenberg, February 16, 2013, Edmonton Journal
The province and power companies once denied mercury and metals discovered in central Alberta lakes were linked to local industry, arguing instead they were carried on the wind from across the globe. It wasn’t until a scientist definitively connected the concentrations of mercury to coal-burning power plants near Wabamun Lake in 2006 that stricter emission guidelines were put in place. Similarly, government and industry have denied for decades that industrial activity in the oilsands region causes pollution, a position refuted by a growing body of scientific evidence. Two studies released in the last month found cancer-causing agents in water and air downstream of the oilsands, backing up 2010 research by a team from the University of Alberta that was contested by industry at the time.

“I will be interested to see what the province does,” said Bill Donahue, the scientist from Edmonton whose peer-reviewed mercury study in 2006 prompted Alberta to adopt stricter emission standards for coal-fired plants. “When companies in the oilsands file applications with government, they say they anticipate no negative impacts, and will mitigate any that occur. I would argue at this point that there is substantial evidence that industry is toxifying the environment, that the situation is expected to worsen as the pace of development increases, and that restrictions need to be imposed. If it means some company has to spend a half-billion dollars to develop better emissions technology, I don’t care. The only time industry ever improves its environmental performance is when regulations are imposed.”

Officials within the oil industry acknowledge the recent studies, but bristle at the notion that there is a need for tighter emission standards. They remain adamant that links between pollution and the oilsands are tenuous. “The evidence is inconclusive as to effect as well as source,” Travis Davies, a spokesman for the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers, said in an email. “Is it worth monitoring? Absolutely.” Davies counters that oil companies have made significant progress toward reducing emissions, and points out that a recent industry-funded study by scientists from Waterloo University found no evidence that oilsands activity has contributed measurably to concentrations of polycyclic aromatic compounds, cancer-causing chemicals released when petroleum is burned during production. And even if polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons are occurring, Davies said, the contaminants have not been found to exceed Canadian guidelines in either the water or the air downstream of oilsands facilities. “The response to PAHs is not clear at this time either in if it is warranted, or if action could have a measurable effect,” Davies wrote.

But Donahue said the link has been established by credible research, including a 2009 study by University of Alberta scientist David Schindler and studies by scientists from Environment Canada, Queen’s University and the Wood Buffalo Environmental Association that were published last month. … “The lakes are simply the tools where this technique can be used,” Donahue said. “But the important part of the story that people seem to be missing is that similar contamination is going everywhere else. It doesn’t just fall into lakes.”

A member of a local grassroots group that engaged Donahue to do the mercury study, Edmonton-Strathcona MP Linda Duncan said the situation in the oilsands today is reminiscent of what happened when questions started being asked a decade ago about mercury concentrations in Alberta lakes, including Wabamun, about 70 kilometres west of Edmonton, known for its waterfowl, whitefish and ample northern pike. In 2002, Lorne Taylor, the provincial environment minister of the day, set up an advisory panel to develop an improved emission-control strategy. However, a consensus on what regulations were needed wasn’t reached until after Donahue’s study was published four years later. Duncan sees the same hesitancy on government’s behalf to make major changes today. “There are hundreds of thousands of tons of pollutants being emitted by industry and it is obviously going somewhere,” she said in her Edmonton office, photographs of the late NDP leader Jack Layton at her fingertips and on a bookshelf behind her. “But until these recent peer-reviewed reports were published, government absolutely refused to admit the buildup was in any part related to industry. “We had the same thing with mercury. They kept saying, ‘Oh, the mercury is naturally occurring.’ On occasion, you still see it seeping into government reports.”

A member of a parliamentary committee that studied the impacts of the oilsands on water resources in 2010, Duncan is critical of the federal government for being too soft on industry. “It is government’s responsibility to make sure the long-term interests of Albertans and Canadians are protected,” she said. “Government is dropping the ball and saying, ‘Oh, industry, you figure this out.’ Or, ‘We are still negotiating with industry about who is going to pay for a cumulative environmental impact assessment.’ “They should just frigging impose emission limits on them. It is not like all of a sudden industry is putting a cork in the stacks. Where is the action needed to regulate the pollutants that are being discovered in the environment?” A communications adviser for Environment Canada said the federal and provincial governments are in the process of implementing a comprehensive oilsands monitoring plan that will help determine what, if any, action is needed. … Laurie Blakeman, the Edmonton Centre MLA and Liberal environment critic, finds the province’s deliberate approach disheartening. “It really demonstrates how much government has shifted its role from protector of the environment 10 years ago to friend of the industry,” Blakeman said. “Unfortunately, it doesn’t have the intestinal fortitude to put guidelines in place.” [Emphasis added]

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