Troubling failures in tar sands monitoring, oversight and regulation

Today, the Royal Society of Canada released a report that pointed out some important informational and regulatory gaps when it comes to understanding and managing the impacts of tar sands on the environment and public health. The gaps in information and the weakness of regulation and enforcement are indeed troubling. Hopefully, this report will help move us towards better studies about the potential impacts of tar sands pollution on public health. And hopefully, the report will encourage the Canadian government to take a hard look at how they can play a stronger role, as suggested in a recent report by Environmental Defence Canada, Equiterre and the Pembina Institute.

Tar sands bitumen is strip-mined or drilled from under Boreal forests and wetlands in northern Alberta in Canada. The tarry bitumen is then upgraded into synthetic crude oil and refined into gas and diesel. Assessing available information, the report highlighted how little information there is and how what information there is comes mostly from government and industry - especially concerning water pollution, air pollution and public health impacts of the tar sands development.

The report acknowledges the difficulty of reclamation, that emissions from the tar sands make it difficult for Canada to meet its international commitments to reduce greenhouse gases and that regulation has not kept pace with the rapid expansion of the tar sands.

The areas where the report identified concerns, but found fewer causal connections to the tar sands (health and water) are areas where they also acknowledged that the available information was weak.

For example, the report said that there are valid concerns about the current Regional Aquatics Monitoring Program (RAMP) that was also criticized in a recent study that found water concentrations of 13 poisoning elements – including lead, arsenic and mercury – are higher downstream from industrial tar sands activities than upstream. The broader issue of inadequate water quality monitoring for tar sands pollutants was just highlighted in a report by the Canadian Environment Commissioner who found that the federal government monitoring station on the Athabasca River was not testing for tar sands pollutants despite a 2009 recommendation that they do so.

The Royal Society report also noted that more monitoring is needed focused on human contaminant exposures. However, oddly enough, they did not then acknowledge the Alberta Cancer Board study that found elevated rates of cancer in a community downstream from the tar sands. Yet, after review, my colleague Dr. Gina Solomon has confirmed that the Alberta Cancer Board study found elevated rates of cancers particularly associated with petroleum pollution in Ft. Chipewyan. Additional studies on the human health problems and their cause have repeatedly been requested by the communities downstream from the tar sands.

Extraction and processing of tar sands takes an enormous toll on the environment. As one Royal Society fellow commented in the press: “The take-home message of the report is we have very strong failures in our regulatory and oversight system, both at the federal and provincial levels. That needs urgent attention.” The governments of Alberta and Canada will hopefully respond to this newest report with improved monitoring of environmental impacts and stronger regulations, implementation and enforcement to make sure that existing tar sands operations clean up their act.