Environment Canada research scientist Jane Kirk collects snow samples near Fort McMurray, Alberta. The snow may look pristine but it can contain toxic mercury from Alberta oilsands mining operations. Photo: Rodney McInnis / Environment Canada / Postmedia News

By Margaret Munro
29 December 2013

(Postmedia News) – 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.

The federal scientists stress the mercury loadings around the oilsands are low compared to the contamination seen in many parts of North America including southern Ontario and southern Quebec.

But they say the mercury is “the number one concern” when it comes to the metal toxins generated by oilsands operations. It is also a major worry for aboriginal and environmental groups concerned about the oilsands’ impact on fishing, hunting and important wildlife staging areas downstream of the oilsands.

Environment Canada scientists are sampling everything from snow to lichens to bird eggs as part of the federal-provincial joint oilsands monitoring program.

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.

Both Muir and Kirk stressed in an interview with Postmedia News that much higher levels of mercury pollution are seen in southern Ontario and southern Quebec, which are on the receiving end of toxins created by incinerators, combustion and coal-burning power plants.

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. [more]

Mercury levels rising in expanse around Alberta oilsands



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