SETAC Globe - Environmental Quality Through Science
19 February 2015
Volume 16 Issue 2
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Summary of Canadian Oil Sands Sessions at SETAC Vancouver

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

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 it has necessitated the development of regional research programs capable of assessing potential impacts on terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems. During SETAC Vancouver, two scientific sessions 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 SETAC Vancouver theme was “Sea to Sky: Interconnecting Ecosystems,” and the presentations in these sessions, from a multidisciplinary group of chemists, biologists, toxicologists and engineers from academia, business and government, surely fulfilled this theme and exemplified the true spirit of a SETAC meeting. While next to impossible to fully capture the breadth of research covered in the platform and poster presentations of the two Canadian oil sands sessions at the meeting, a few highlights are provided below.

Epigenetic Effects of Pollutants

On Monday afternoon, a special symposium with the title “Developing Technologies for Reclamation and Monitoring Environmental Impacts in the Oil Sands Region” featured a variety of research topics centered on establishing methods and techniques capable of assessing the historic and current influence of natural and industrial inputs of oil sands materials to the Athabasca ecosystem. A few presentations focused on investigations of atmospheric deposition of trace elements and organic compounds. Research presented by Jane Kirk, Environment Canada, analyzed current and historic snowpack data and dated lake sediment cores, demonstrating that oil sand developments emit contaminants to the atmosphere and that deposition of mercury and numerous other contaminants such as sulfate, nitrate, ammonia and PACs has increased since mining operations were initiated. Further examination of mercury and methyl mercury (the toxic and bioaccumulative form of mercury) in five major tributaries of the Athabasca River showed that the extent of oil sands development as well as bogs and fens in the watershed of each river are likely important drivers of total and methyl mercury exports, respectively, to the Athabasca River.

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).

Colin Cooke, Alberta Environment and Sustainable Resource Development, presented research in which sediment cores recovered from lakes in the Athabasca oil sands region were used to track spatial and temporal patterns in trace element deposition due to oil sands mining activities, showing the largest impact closest to the open-pit mines. An interesting talk was given by Bill Shotyk, University of Alberta, summarizing work that assessed Sphagnum mosses from 21 ombrotrophic bogs in the region that showed no significant atmospheric contamination of “heavy metals” (Ag, Cd, Pb, Sb, Tl).  These interpretations from moss seemingly conflicted with previous interpretations from snow and lake sediment archives in the region, resulting in a lively question period, including a discussion around the definition of “contamination” for chemicals with a local natural source.

Other presentations in this special symposium focused on water use and potential influences of oil sands development on the surrounding aquatic environment. Rodney Guest, Suncor Energy Inc., presented a thorough overview of some of the initiatives currently under development to maximize the efficiency of water use and management in mining operations. Alexa Alexander, University of New Brunswick, presented the findings of an analysis of a 32-year water chemistry dataset (1978 to 2010), identifying that the primary driver of historic changes in water chemistry was landscape level changes attributable to early land clearing in seven tributaries of the Athabasca and Clearwater rivers.  Mark McMaster, Environment Canada, presented a summary of three years of baseline monitoring of fish within the lower Athabasca River under the Joint Oil Sands Monitoring (JOSM) program.  This work has provided a background understanding of fish health in the area that can now be used to move forward with the monitoring program to identify meaningful change over time, and fish health will be integrated with other JOSM monitoring endpoints to help inform management actions.  John Giesy, University of Saskatchewan, presented research that assessed the ability of a simple model to predict the toxicity of oil sands process-affected water (OSPW), based on the assumption that the mode of action is (polar) narcosis, and using information on accurate mass from ultra-high resolution mass spectrometry and compound-specific Kow values.  This model allowed the toxicity of a complex mixture of OSPW to be predicted within about 40%, which was well within the 95% confidence interval of the measured dose-response relationship, and it did not require knowledge of specific structures of the 2,500 accurate masses included in the model.

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).

On Wednesday morning, the session “Canadian Oil Sands: Advancements in the Ecotoxicology of Process-Affected Materials and Analytical Detection Methodologies” was held as part of the Aquatic Toxicology and Ecology track.  Joanne Parrott, Enviornment Canada, summarized an extensive amount of research that has assessed larval fish survival and growth after 21-day exposures of minnows in the lab to different environmental samples (snow, freshet and bottom sediments) from oil sands areas, with observed decreases in survival of larval fish exposed to some samples close to industry and some near natural bitumen deposits.  Adrienne Bartlett, Environment Canada, assessed the acute toxicity of naphthenic acid (NA) mixtures extracted from varying sources of OSPW using Vibrio fischeri, a marine bacterium, Lampsilis cardium, a freshwater mussel, and Hyalella azteca a freshwater amphipod, and determined that the relative toxicity of the NA extracts was inconsistent across these test species, suggesting that extrapolation between species to estimate the toxicity of NA extracts should be done cautiously, if at all.

Looking beyond oil sands materials present only in northern Alberta, Valerie Langlois and a research team from the Royal Military College of Canada and Queen's University conducted one of the first tests of the chronic toxicity of diluted bitumen (dilbit: mixture of gas condensate and bitumen transported by the pipelines) to fish.  The observed toxicity was similar to that of other oil types, highlighting the importance of assessing dilbit toxicity in ecological risk assessments. There were also presentations highlighting recent advancements in the chemical characterization of highly complex oil sands mixtures.  Michael Wilde presented the summation of greater than three years of work conducted by Steve Rowland’s laboratory at the Plymouth University (Outreach, funded by the European Research Council), involving analyzing samples by GCxGC-MS and synthesizing large numbers of compounds.  This work resulted in solving the mystery of the “exotic” structural nature of bicyclic acids in OSPW.  Richard Frank, Environment Canada, also focused on the chemical complexity of OSPW, and following the assessment of the inherent compositional variability of the polar organic mixtures within oil sands tailings ponds, differences were identified within as well as between two different ponds, indicating that single grab samples are not representative of a tailings pond as a whole.

The preceding summary only highlights a portion of the topics covered in the 2014 SETAC North America Canadian Oil Sands sessions, which cumulatively provided a comprehensive overview of much of the research currently underway in this diverse field. The platform and poster presentations were very well attended, a fact that was noted in the conference’s closing ceremony! We look forward to continuing the excellent dialogue that has progressed over the years at these Canadian oil sands sessions, and we’re excited to see where the science leads us at the SETAC North America 36th Annual Meeting in Salt Lake City, UT.

Author’s contact information:  Richard.Frank@ec.gc.ca and Jon.Martin@ualberta.ca

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