SETAC Globe - Environmental Quality Through Science
16 January 2014
Volume 15 Issue 1
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Summary of Canadian Oil Sands Sessions at the 2013 SETAC North America Annual Meeting in Nashville

Richard A. Frank, Environment Canada, and Jonathan W. Martin, University of Alberta

Canadian oil sands
Oil sands industrial development near Athabasca River (middle of picture). Tailings pond (center background) and a constructed wetland on a reclaimed tailings pond (top right).

The Athabasca oil sands region of Alberta, Canada, contains the world’s third largest proven oil reserve, comprised primarily of bitumen. This resource has fueled the rapid expansion of an oil sands industry in northern Alberta and has necessitated the development of regional research programs capable of assessing potential impacts on terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems.  On Wednesday, 20 November 2013, during the SETAC North America annual meeting, a full-day scientific session showcased research assessing the environmental impacts associated with development of the oil sands industry, the progress of reclamation strategies currently in use or under development, and recent advancements in understanding the toxicity and chemical characterization of highly complex mixtures of oil sands components.  The theme for the SETAC meeting in Nashville was “Harmonizing Science Across Disciplines,” and the presentations in this session, from a multidisciplinary group of chemists, biologists, toxicologists, engineers, academics and business and government researchers, surely fulfilled this theme and exemplified the true spirit of a SETAC meeting.

The morning session, “Canadian Oil Sands – Part I: Assessing Impacts on the Environment and the Advancement of Oil Sands Reclamation Strategies,” featured, among other topics, an overview of Suncor Energy’s advancement of wetland reclamation techniques, including the construction of one of the first fen peatland watersheds in the world. A presentation by Canada’s Oil Sands Innovation Alliance (COSIA) provided perspective regarding the site- and endpoint-specific defined triggers that are necessary for effective regional monitoring programs in the oil sands region to accurately define when a change has occurred, as well as the necessity for a regional reference base to define the relevance or importance of such changes. The morning session also featured several presentations by Environment Canada on recent findings from the Canadian federal and Alberta provincial Joint Oil Sands Monitoring Program (JOSMP).  One study assessed springtime snowpack measurements from 2011 and 2012, demonstrating that atmospheric loadings of many inorganic contaminants, including mercury and methyl mercury, other priority pollutant elements (PPEs) and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, increased with proximity to the major oil sands development area. A separate investigation used colonial waterbird eggs to provide insight into spatial and temporal patterns of mercury availability in the oil sands region of Alberta, while a second study in this region that assessed nestling tree swallows on industrial sites indicated alterations in thyroid function which were correlated with alkylated PAHs measured in their tissues. One other highlight from the morning session was an Environment Canada presentation compiling data that had been collected during prior studies, which indicate some responses in fish exposed to natural oil sands deposits and potential increases downstream of industrial development. This presentation also outlined how the JOSMP has been designed to confirm these responses as well as determine whether these responses change over time.

The afternoon session, entitled “Canadian Oil Sands – Part II: Advancements in Ecotoxicology of Process-affected Materials and Analytical Detection,” also featured, among other topics, research by Environment Canada in support of the JOSMP. One presentation utilized advanced separation and analytical techniques (HRMS and GC×GC-TOF/MS) to analyze samples of oil sands process-affected water (OSPW), on-lease groundwater and groundwater collected from near- and far-field locations. This investigation revealed chemical profiles unique to waters influenced by OSPW and by natural oil sands chemicals, and also indicated that groundwater collected near tailings ponds had chemical profiles more closely resembling OSPW. A second Environment Canada presentation assessed the larval toxicity and growth of laboratory fathead minnows after 21-day exposures to different environmental samples from the oil sands region, including snow, freshet, suspended sediments, bottom sediments and groundwaters. Additional work by Environment Canada determined that the 7-day acute toxicity of Hyalella azteca exposed to commercial mixtures of naphthenic acids (NAs) was 20-fold more toxic than a mixture of NAs extracted from OSPW. The afternoon session also featured two presentations related to the use of biological tissues in monitoring efforts. ATI International presented a study that utilized lichen as a biomonitoring tool to integrate PAH deposition from multiple sources and indicated that total PAH concentrations declined with increasing distance from the primary surface mining area. AXYS Analytical highlighted a method capable of analyzing naphthenic acids in spiked tissue for use in environmental monitoring or environmental forensic initiatives.

canadian oil sands
Steepbank River (tributary of Athabasca River) flowing through natural oil sands deposit (bottom right and center) and proximate to industrial development (background).

In addition to the full-day of platform sessions, the “Canadian Oil Sands” session featured an extensive poster session that summarized research related to this rapidly expanding field. Among the highlights of this poster session, research from the University of Lethbridge indicated significant changes in fish community composition and fish health in the lower Athabasca region and also suggested that new fish fence data is necessary to adequately assess potential changes in migratory fish populations for watersheds with available historical data.  Joint research of the Universities of Alberta and Saskatchewan revealed that an acutely toxic acid extract from OSPW was also genotoxic and mutagenic in vitro, and the effects were more pronounced following S9 bioactivation. It was not clear which chemicals in this supercomplex mixture were most toxic, but further research from the University of Alberta using in vitro models of bioaccumulation showed that compounds other than naphthenic acids need to be considered, including those compounds containing nitrogen and sulfur. AXYS Analytical also presented the calculations of field-based sediment-water distribution coefficients for naphthenic acids, PAHs and alkylated-PAHs, as well as providing principal component analyses for fingerprinting and source characterization. Research by Environment Canada assessed the mussel toxicity of groundwater collected close to oil sands upgrading facilities and in samples collected far from oil sands industrial development, revealing difficulties in differentiating the toxic effects of natural and industrial sources due to naturally elevated salt concentrations of some groundwaters from this region.

Environment Canada also presented research in which exposure of fish liver cells to OSPW revealed changes in the gene expression of xenobiotic biotransformation, as well as showing a strong genotoxic potential as evidenced by the high expression of genes involved in DNA repair activity. However, further investigation of surface water extracts revealed that the waters upstream and downstream of the oil sands development area indicated no significant evidence of contamination by OSPW. Another study by Environment Canada analyzed dated lake sediment cores taken from lakes within 50 km of the center of surface mining development. While this data suggested that deposition of mercury, crustal elements and PPEs has increased since 1960, coincident with the beginning of oil sands development in this region, deposition of zinc, vanadium and nickel has declined in post-2000 sediments, implying a greater importance of atmospheric dust from open-pit mining and land disturbance.

The preceding summary only highlights a portion of the topics covered in the 2013 SETAC North America Canadian Oil Sands sessions, which cumulatively provided a comprehensive overview of much of the research currently under investigation in this diverse field.  The platform presentations were very well attended, and the concluding poster social provided all attendees with interesting topics to discuss while taking in Nashville’s music scene. Hopefully, these discussions will continue after another year of research progress during the 2014 SETAC North America annual meeting in the Canadian west in Vancouver, BC!

Authors' contact information: Richard.Frank@ec.gc.ca, jon.martin@ualberta.ca

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