Environmental health risks of Alberta oilsands underestimated: study

Alberta oilsands
A Suncor mine facility along the Athabasca river as seen from a helicopter tour of the oil sands near Fort McMurray, Alta., Tuesday, July 10, 2012. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jeff McIntosh

EDMONTON – A new study suggests the environmental health risks of oilsands operations in Alberta’s Athabasca region have probably been underestimated.

Researchers say emissions of potentially hazardous air pollution that were used in environmental reviews done before approving some projects did not include evaporation from tailings ponds or other sources, such as dust from mining sites.

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The University of Toronto study looked at reported levels of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons – chemicals which can be released into the air, water and soil when bitumen-rich oilsands are mined and processed.

The study is published today in the U.S. journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

The results suggest emissions may be two to three times higher than the estimates recorded in some project environmental reviews.

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Professor Frank Wania says the results highlight the need for improved accounting of these emissions from oilsands operations, especially when more projects are being built or planned in the region.

Wania says some of the chemicals pose a potential cancer risk, but nothing imminent.

The concentrations that have been measured in the air in the oilsands region are comparable to a big city such as Toronto.

Wania says the team’s research was funded by the university, but Environment Canada is now providing money to follow up on the findings.