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Slave River clean or contaminated?

Jack Danylchuk
Northern News Services
Published Monday, February 21, 2011


A handful of scientists know the answer almost for certain, but Northerners will have to wait until later this year to learn if mining Alberta's oil sands is poisoning major tributaries of the Mackenzie River.

The scientists checked the vital signs of the Slave River between 2000 and 2005 to update a decade-old baseline study that found heavy metals and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons in the river's suspended sediments; it attributed those to natural sources.

Bitumen mining has surged since the initial study of 1990-95, and, with it, controversy over monitoring its potential environmental effects on the Athabasca River and downstream communities where residents are blaming the mines for rare cancers, deformed fish and low water levels on the Slave River.

Now undergoing peer review, the findings of the latest study in the Slave River Environmental Quality Program will be the first to measure what is going on in the upper reaches of the Mackenzie Basin.

Authors of the baseline study saw their work as "invaluable in developing objectives to protect this Northern environment and essential for trans-boundary negotiations."

But even Environment Minister Michael Miltenberger is out of the loop, according to Rebecca Alty, a GNWT spokesperson who forwarded comments from the department, "the report has been identified as a priority.

"The GNWT will receive it in time to assist in our trans-boundary agreement negotiations," Miltenberger said in reply to questions e-mailed to his office.

As a prelude to opening talks with Alberta and British Columbia, the GNWT last year released a water policy document 'Northern Voices, Northern Waters.' It demands that water flowing into the territories remain "substantially unaltered in quality, quantity and rates of flow."

Formal negotiations with Alberta have yet to begin, but Miltenberger said in an e-mail that "several multilateral meetings have been held to reach an agreement on common principles, work plans and a schedule for the negotiations.

"Dr. Erin Kelly of (Environment and Natural Resources) is also participating in the Environment Canada Panel tasked with designing a world class monitoring program for the oil sands," the minister noted.

The authors of the Slave River baseline study found that concentrations of some polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) in suspended sediment were above bottom sediment guidelines, and recommended further monitoring to determine if the source is natural or man-made.

"Several factors point to a natural source of PAHs in the Slave River. Concentrations of PAHs were not similar to patterns seen at sites downstream of oil spills. Therefore further study may be warranted to verify if the source is natural and determine impacts," the authors said.

"In general, the results of the study indicate that many parameters were present at extremely low levels or were not detected even with state of the art analytical techniques," they said, and concluded:

"Overall the levels of contaminants measured in the aquatic environment at Fort Smith are not likely to cause adverse effects."

They recommended further monitoring of water for heavy metals which exceeded Canadian Guidelines for the Protection of Freshwater Aquatic Life (CPFAL).

"However, these levels were within the range of historical values, which are considered to be the result of natural weathering of rocks. While it is unlikely that these concentrations would cause any adverse impacts to aquatic life, further research may be warranted," they said.

The presence of elevated levels of some metals in fish "may justify further study to ascertain their source and impact on the aquatic system. Since accumulation of metals is influenced by biological factors such as species and age, further analysis of the data may also be warranted to highlight species."

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