Oil sands producers found themselves in the midst of a fresh attack from the environmental community when a new study released Monday identified levels of oil sands-related contamination that appear to have intensified since the beginning of commercial development to present day. Core samples extracted from 6 regional lakes showed the presence of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons up to 50 miles north of Fort McMurray, Alberta – the hub of oil sands mining activity.

“Our research tells a consistent story of increased contaminants and ecological change that has occurred in the region since industrial development of bitumen resources began,” Joshua Kurek, a postdoctoral fellow at Queen’s University, Department of Biology is quoted as saying on the university’s website.

The study is officially titled “Legacy of a half century of Athabasca oil sands development recorded by lake ecosystems,” and a copy of the paper, which was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, can be accessed here.

Kurek told Breaking Energy that the 4 main oil sands upgraders located north of Fort McMurray are likely the source of contamination, which enters the lakes via atmospheric deposition. “We can tell this from chemical signatures that can be linked to the upgraders,” he said, explaining that natural sources like forest fires can also introduce PAHs into the environment. Upgraders are simple refineries.

“PAHs are a diverse group of organic compounds with multiple aromatic rings and are produced by the incomplete combustion of fossil fuels and biomass,” according to the study.

Previous studies were de-emphasized by industry and some governmental representatives for lacking a historical baseline. Samples had yet to be taken in the 1960′s when commercial oil sands mining began and monitoring programs designed to track these contaminants had yet to be instituted, which is why the latest findings relied on historical lake sediment analysis.

Relatively Low Levels of Contamination, But Still Problematic

The contaminant levels detected in most cases were below Canadian interim sediment quality guidelines. “NE20: the lake experiencing the greatest modern PAH loadings at ∼23-times background levels,” was the only site to exceed CISQGs, according to the study, which also finds “given these temporal trends, maximum PAH concentrations and fluxes from our study lakes, except NE20, are generally comparable to other remote lakes and much lower than absolute values from lakes within more urbanized catchments, including three Albertan lakes influenced by localized coal and gasoline combustion sources of PAHs.”

However, the increased concentration of toxins over time is call for concern said the researchers and it suggests the trends could worsen if oil sands mining continues in its current form.

“Given that oil sands development will undoubtedly increase, we are certain that these trends will accelerate, and increased development will likely impact ecosystems farther from the current pollution sources,” Queen’s biology professor John Smol, Canada Research Chair in Environmental Change said in a statement.

The industry response to the research was largely positive: “science-based research is good, and good for the industry,” Travis Davies, Manager, Media and Issues for the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers told Breaking Energy.

“We need to understand the impacts of oil sands [development] – address and deal with them through policy, regulations and best practices,” he said. “Now the enhanced monitoring program will be adjusted to account for this research, and to some extent it already has,” because this type of contamination is one of the things regulators have been looking at. “It is a good first step,” said Davies.

The Industry, Regulators and Science

Indeed, additional research is underway and according to Kurek, “Further studies are being done to pinpoint the sources – windblown dust could be contributing – but it’s not easy to identify, we are working to fingerprint the actual sources. These studies are ongoing and in early stages.”

The new PAH research and these additional studies will be incorporated into Alberta’s evolving regulatory regime. The government of Alberta is moving toward a single regulator approach that can assess an entire operation, as opposed to a group of regulatory bodies with separate remits, which is how regulations have been handled until now. The Alberta Energy Regulator, as it will be known, is scheduled to be operational by June of this year, government officials told a group of journalists during a recent tour of the oil sands region.

“Alberta is committed to ongoing research to ensure we fully understand the potential impacts in the oil sands region. We welcome the findings and we will carefully review this study, as we would with any study related to development in the oil sands region. Research like this will be incorporated into future work; it also complements similar studies already underway in the department and in cooperation with the federal government under the Joint Canada-Alberta Implementation Plan for Oil Sands Monitoring, as well as the work to build Alberta’s new arms-length provincial environmental monitoring agency,” Jessica Potter, Acting Assistant Director of Communications at the Government of Alberta’s Environment & Sustainable Resource Development Department told Breaking Energy in an email.

Oil sands development is undergoing a shift toward greater use of in situ recovery – the method required to develop much of the remaining oil sands deposits which are located too deep to be extracted via surface mining. In situ production injects steam – commonly derived from burning natural gas – deep underground to melt bitumen and pump it back to the surface.

The atmospheric deposition of PAHs identified in the Queens University study is less of a concern with in situ production. “Cenovus does not emit PAHs at our oil sands operations,” Brett Harris, Sr. Adviser for Media Relations told Breaking Energy in an email. Cenovus Energy is a large oil sands producer that spun off from EnCana in 2009.

While over the longer term the trend within the industry is toward in situ production, mining operations will likely continue for decades. Numerous expansions have already been approved by regulators, meaning more work will need to be done to mitigate the release of PAHs and other toxins into the environment if sustainable oil sands development is to be achieved.

As noted by the Queens University researchers, “We conclude that lake sediments in the Athabasca oil sands region register a clear PAH legacy with the pace and scale of industrial development of the region’s tremendous bitumen deposits.”