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Oil sands contaminating northern lakes in Alberta
Recent study does not show evidence of contamination stretching to NWT

Thandiwe Vela
Northern News Services
Published Monday, January 14, 2013

A new study that shows lake contamination from oil sands development is reaching farther than previously thought has led to fresh words of concern by Deninu Ku'e Chief Louis Balsillie, who believes the oil sands development in Alberta is among the reasons for increasing cancer rates in his community.

The Queen's University research found increasing amounts of toxic substances tied to the Athabasca oil sands bitumen in the sediment of five lakes within 50 kilometres of the development, and in one lake 90 kilometres northwest of the major development area.

The study only looked at polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAH) and dibenothiophenes (DBT) - both toxins released through oil sands processing and mining operations, but also released through human-related sources such as lighting matches or forest fires.

The data shows that the total amount of the pollutants increased at the start of oil sands developments in the 1960s, and the pollutants specifically related to the oil sands industry have been especially increasing over the past 50 years, said Queen's biologist John Smol.

"All this time, people have been arguing all the pollution is natural, but we could fingerprint the type of contaminants going back to the oil sands. So I think our main conclusion was to show it isn't natural," Smol said.

Namer Lake, the closest lake to the territory studied, is still at least 300 km away from the NWT border, Smol added.

"We don't have any direct evidence going all the way up to NWT," he said. "We have only one lake at 90 km - we're always a little cautious when we have only one lake - but that one lake also seemed to show that the footprint of the pollution was bigger than previously suspected."

While Balsillie admits there is no evidence proving his claims, he "strongly believes" that oil sands development is negatively impacting NWT lakes as well.

"Everything that happens in Alberta, it clouds into our big lake here, in the Great Slave Lake here. It feels the impact," Balsillie said. "We're getting the brunt of everything."

Balsillie is frustrated that the community, located at the mouth of the Slave River, on the shore of Great Slave Lake, has still not gotten answers to its higher-than-average cancer rates since a review prepared last year by an epidemiologist with the Public Health Agency of Canada, pointed the finger at lifestyle.

"We have no answer today to the cancer issues. The doctor was saying our people drink too much, smoke too much, and eat too much. That's not an answer. We need more but it's not happening.

"In the community here we were having people pass away every month for a while with cancer. It's sad."

While the toxins, which travel by air, can cause cancer at high levels, the levels at the fly-in, wilderness lakes researched for the study showed PAH and DBT contamination at levels comparable to a lake in a city like Calgary, Smol said, adding the effect for the lake at 90 km, was "much reduced."

However, the fact that oil sands operations are slated to increase by an estimated 150 per cent over the next 50 years, is something to keep in mind, he added.

"If nothing changes - they just keep releasing these emissions and they increase (operations) two and a half times in the next 50 years - then you're going to be reaching some contaminant levels that can be a problem," Smol said.

The research, published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, was funded by Environment Canada and the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada.

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