Researchers find 7,300-sq-mile (19,000 sq km) area of increasing mercury around Alberta tarsands, Mercury levels rising, more toxic form methyl mercury found in snow

Scientists Find 7,300-Mile Mercury Contamination ‘Bullseye’ Around Canadian Tar Sands by Emily Atkin, December 30, 2013, Think Progress

Researchers find 7,300-sq-mile ring of mercury around tar sands in Canada
by Peter Moskowitz, December 29, 2013, Aljazeera
Bitumen in the tar sands being excavated to produce oil is the likely culprit of the mercury deposits

Mercury levels rising in expanse around Alberta oilsands by Margaret Munro, Postmedia News, December 29, 2013, Calgary Herald
Mercury wafting out of oilsands operations is impacting an area – or “bull’s-eye” — that extends for about 19,000 square kilometres in northeast Alberta, according to federal scientists. Levels of the potent neurotoxin found near the massive industrial operation have been found to be up to 16 times higher than “background” levels for the region, says Environment Canada researcher Jane Kirk, who recently reported the findings at an international toxicology conference. Mercury can bioaccumulate in living creatures and chronic exposure can cause brain damage. It is such a concern that Environment Minister Leona Aglukkaq signed an international treaty in October pledging Canada to further reduce releases to the environment.

Kirk, who will publish the findings in a scientific study in 2014, told the Society of Environmental Toxicology and Chemistry conference in Nashville in November that about 19,000 square kilometres are “currently impacted by airborne Hg (mercury) emissions originating from oilsands developments.” The levels decrease with distance from the oilsands. “It’s a gradual thing like a bulls’-eye,” says co-investigator Derek Muir, head of Environment Canada’s ecosystem contaminants dynamics section. The highest mercury loadings were found in the “middle of the bull’s-eye,” he says, and cover “probably 10 per cent” of the 19,000 square kilometres found to be impacted. …

The scientists say much research remains to be done on the mercury around the oilsands, but there are indications the toxin is building up in some of the region’s wildlife. Environment Canada wildlife scientist Craig Hebert has been comparing eggs from waterbirds from northern and southern Alberta. He told the toxicology conference that mercury levels have been increasing in eggs of several bird species downstream of the oilsands.  And in 2012 the mercury levels in the majority of Caspian Tern eggs “exceeded the lower toxicity threshold,” he reported, noting more work is needed to evaluate the sources and impact of mercury in the fish-eating birds.

The oilsands’ upgraders, open pit mines, exposed coke piles, and tailings ponds have been associated in previous work with polycyclic aromatic compounds, which have been linked to cancer, and a long list of other chemicals including 13 priority pollutant elements such as lead, cadmium and selenium. Kirk’s team reports “springtime snowpack measurements demonstrate that aerial loadings of many of the inorganic contaminants examined increased with proximity to the major development area.” The highest loadings of mercury were 1,000 nanograms per square metre, much higher than the background level for the region. … The scientists also found up to 19 nanograms of methyl mercury per square metre near the oilsands, 16 times the region’s background level. It is the first report of this more “toxic” form of mercury in snow.“Here we have a direct source of methyl mercury being emitted in this region and deposited to the landscapes and water bodies,” Kirk said. “So come snowmelt that methyl mercury is now going to enter lakes and rivers where potentially it could be taken up directly by organisms and then bioaccumulated and biomagnified though food webs.” …

“To our knowledge, emissions data from blowing dusts due to various landscape disturbances (open pit mines, exposed coke piles, new roads, etc.) and volatilization from tailing ponds are not publicly available,” they say. … And Kirk wants to get a better read on the fate of mercury. “Is it affecting fish levels and is it going to result in increasing fish consumption advisories?” [Emphasis added]

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