David Dodge/Pembina Institute
A tailings pond in the Alberta oil sands. A new study has found that pollution from these ponds is vastly underreported.

Study Finds Industry Underreporting of Oil Sands Pollutants

Andrew Nikiforuk, The Tyee

A new study has found that certain types of chemical pollutants emitted by Canada's oil sands tailing ponds have gone underreported for years.

Using a computer simulation model, two University of Toronto scientists also found the pollutants in question are blowing off mine sites or evaporating from nearly two dozen impoundments containing a billion cubic metres of toxic waste.

Two of the dikes holding the mining waste products are among the largest man-made dams in the world.

The pollutants are three polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAH), a class of chemicals that includes a variety of cancer makers and that have become a major contaminant of waterways in the region.

When the scientists discovered that industry reporting on estimates of PAH pollutants in the oilsands were too low to explain the levels of PAHs now being found up to 95 kilometres away, they realized that industry had not been reporting emissions from the tailing ponds.

The scientists also found that PAHs evaporating from the lakes of mining waste were likely a greater contributor of pollution to the atmosphere in the region than emissions directly released into the air by industry.

In a companion essay to the study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), water ecologist David Schindler explained the significance of the findings by noting "that by ignoring emissions from tailings ponds, the annual release of polycyclic aromatic compounds from the oilsands industry have been underestimated by as much as two orders-of-magnitude."


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