Malformations and tumors in fish have been linked to oil pollution in the Athabasca region and in the Gulf of Mexico after the Horizon Deep Water oil spill.
“Given the parallels in the cases from various locations, it seems likely that some chemical or suite of chemicals in crude oil is causing the malformations, wrote Dr. David Schindler of the U. of Alberta, in an open letter to DFO Minister Keith Ashfield and Environment Minister Peter Kent yesterday. “Some of these compounds are known or suspected carcinogens, mutagens or teratogens, while the toxicity of others is largely unknown.”
In addition to alerting the minsters of this oil sands-related problem, Dr. Schindler advised that closing the Experimental Lakes Area (ELA), will mean that definitive work on the effects of these compounds will not be possible in the future.
DFO has said that no research will take place at the ELA after March 31, even though negotiations for a transfer to a new operator are ongoing.
“While Environment Canada scientists are now doing an excellent job of monitoring the [Athabasca] river, it will be impossible to determine which chemicals are responsible for the malformations in the complex chemical soup that occurs downstream of oil sands mining,” says Dr. Schindler. A clearer way “would be whole ecosystem experiments where small amounts of selected chemicals are applied to whole lakes.”
Dr. Schindler proposes “that the ELA site and laboratory should be kept open to conduct these important experiments, which have implications for future effects of oil extraction and transport in or near both marine and freshwater ecosystems.”
This week’s crude oil leak in northwestern Ontario due to a train derailment reinforces the need for these types of experiments.
However, the likelihood of the ELA being kept open is in doubt, as the government recently voted down an NDP motion to provide transition funding for the period between March 31 and the potential transfer to a new operator.
“A successful transfer of the ELA, with its unique capability to carry out whole lake experiments, seems unlikely without transition funding from either the Federal or the Ontario government” said Dr. Britt Hall, U. of Regina professor and leader of the Coalition to Save ELA. “This would be a small expense for the government, but would be a huge benefit to future understanding of the impacts of the oil sands on fish and the whole aquatic environment. The government could still change its mind.”