Province’s report on important river may understate risks for downstream residents

Athabasca Thumb

As it flows from the oilsands region towards Fort Chipewyan in northern Alberta, the Athabasca River appeared to be healthy this past winter.

“Right now everything is all frozen, and it all looks beautiful right now,” said Chief Allan Adam of the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation in early March.

But the way he sees it, water beneath the ice is “the hidden grim reaper.”

First Nations people living along the river say the water is not the same as it was four decades ago, when they could safely drink and fish from it.

Questions about official monitoring and reporting of environmental conditions in the region received national attention in 2009. Researchers found pollution settling in snow around oilsands facilities that eventually washed into the river. The study estimated spring run-off each year might carry hydrocarbons “equivalent to a major oil spill.”

Yet in its 2014-2015 annual report, Environment and Sustainable Resource Development (ESRD) published river water quality index values stating the Athabasca River had good-to-excellent water quality for the years up to 2013 and 2014 — the most recent data available.

In fact, out of six Alberta river systems reported in the index, the Athabasca River, both upstream and downstream from the oilsands region, had the most consistently good results.

Athabasca 2The Athabasca River flows from left to right in the lower part of this image, passing under plumes from oilsands facilities between Fort McMurray and Fort McKay. Chief Adam fears what is below the frozen surface of the water. Photo courtesy of Kris Krüg, FlickrIn the background report for the index, the Athabasca River chart is a stripe of green representing 18 years of “good” values, interrupted only by an occasional blue square for “excellent.”

Experts on contaminant monitoring in the region offered several reasons that such reassuring values could appear, even if significant pollutants are entering the river.

The oilsands make up only a small part of the watershed that feeds the Athabasca River, said Joe Rasmussen, who holds a Canada Research Chair in Aquatic Ecosystems at the University of Lethbridge and has served on oilsands review panels.

“So the water flowing into Lake Athabasca’s pretty clean,” he said, simply because pollutants are diluted in huge volumes of very clean water coming from upstream. “But it’s not something we did anything to deserve.”

However, David Schindler, a co-author of the 2009 study and an award-winning aquatic ecologist now retired from the University of Alberta, said fine particles suspended in the river may carry pollutants, but these particles get filtered out before the water is tested.

Other ways to measure water quality

Alberta’s river water quality index relies on testing of water samples.

John Smol, who holds a Canada Research Chair in Environmental Change at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ont., said biomonitoring — looking for effects of pollution on living entities — could actually give a better picture than measuring the pollutants directly.

“If you take a water sample, you’re sampling what’s in that river, at that second, in that bottle,” he said. “If you have something that’s attached to a rock, it’s surviving what’s happening there 24 hours a day.”
Or researchers can simply ask the people who live nearby.

Bruce Maclean, who co-ordinates community-based monitoring in traditional areas used by the Athabasca Chipewyan and the Mikisew Cree First Nations, said by combining reports from numerous people from multiple communities about changes over time, researchers can get a sense of how significant those changes are.

And small changes in water chemistry might not look important, but local people see the effects.

“If you actually live in the system and have relied on it for 65 years, you can tell me that the water tastes different, or when you boil tea it leaves a scum ring on the pot now, or that there’s different kinds of algae that are appearing on your nets in the winter.”

He looks forward to more detailed oilsands monitoring reports from the government, but added, “Where I would say the whole process is still lacking desperately is in consideration of traditional knowledge.”

“If you look at just the material dissolved in water, it meets every sort of guideline you could imagine,” he said.

Schindler also said water quality could be worse at certain times of year — times that may not show up in the measurements. For metals, the index relies on quarterly samples, which could miss the pulses of pollution in run-off from melting snow.

Metals are one of four types of “sub-indices” covered by the index. The other three are nutrients, pesticides and bacteria.

Absent are any measures of hydrocarbons — the chemical compounds that make up oil.

“That was my first question,” said Alvaro Pinto, director of sustainability at Fort McKay First Nation, near the centre of oilsands activity. “What about the VOCs [volatile organic compounds]? What about the hydrocarbons? I mean, there is nothing there [in the index], and we know that it’s there.”

Officials responsible for monitoring say those hydrocarbons don’t fit well in the river water quality index, which considers province-wide issues with a small number of important, well-known contaminants.

If a pollutant is important only in a single river system, that creates a problem for a province-wide index, according to Thorsten Hebben, director of surface water policy with Alberta Environment and Parks. As he explained, the index is an average of a set of measurements. If a hydrocarbon measurement were added to the average for the Athabasca River only, the result could not be compared to other rivers.

Also, the index compares measurements to established guidelines for acceptable levels. For many hydrocarbons, Hebben said these guidelines are lacking because researchers are still developing testing methods and studying the chemicals’ effects.

Asked if hydrocarbon measurements could eventually be included in the index, Hebben said, “I don’t think we’d be doing the information justice.”

He prefers the current approach of separate, in-depth scientific reporting through the oilsands monitoring program.

Athabasca 1The Firebag River flows toward the Athabasca River, passing northeast of open mines and tailing ponds. Similar small rivers passing much closer to the mines, such as the Steepbank River, do not have the Athabasca River’s large volumes of clean water coming from beyond the oilsands region to dilute potential contaminants. Photo courtesy of Kris Krüg, FlickrThat monitoring program is overseen by the Alberta Environmental Monitoring, Evaluation and Reporting Agency, which the former Progressive Conservative government created in 2014 to provide more independent evaluation of the oilsands’ impacts.

The current NDP government recently announced it will fold monitoring responsibility back into the environment department, keeping only the agency’s independent review panel.

Fred Wrona, the agency’s vice-president and chief scientist, said they have expanded water testing in the region to cover more chemistry, at more locations and more often — up to daily sampling when conditions are changing rapidly, such as during thaws.

Like Hebben from Alberta Environment and Parks, Wrona said the river water quality index is useful for general information and historical trends, but the new detailed information they have been gathering would be better reported separately to clearly show the levels of specific contaminants.

But will this separate, in-depth testing appear in the Environment and Parks’ river quality index reports?

Hebben said once there is sufficient data on hydrocarbons and their origins, “I think it’s something that could reasonably be portrayed in the annual report.”

Meanwhile, Albertans see a river water quality index showing only “good” or “excellent” results.

The water quality may be good as far as metals, bacteria, nutrients and pesticides — and perhaps even hydrocarbons, as long as it’s filtered — are concerned.

However, “people who are living out on the land, and fish and other organisms, don’t filter their water before they drink it — they drink it straight out of the river,” Schindler noted.

People don’t drink from the Athabasca anymore, according to Chief Adam from Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation. He remembers a time when he could confidently drink from the Athabasca River, swim in it and fish from it, but that was nearly 40 years ago. Now people worry about mercury in fish, skin infections affecting children and high rates of cancer.

Pinto said people of the Fort McKay First Nation have changed the way they use the river, limiting it to things like boating where “they don’t have to have too much contact with the water.”

River monitoring locations

For each monitored river system, the water quality index is reported for two locations. “Sites are chosen to represent water quality conditions up- and downstream of areas of significant human activity,” reads the Alberta Environment and Parks’ website for the index.

For example, rivers are monitored where they pass through Calgary and Edmonton. The monitored region of the Athabasca River encompasses both Fort McMurray and the oilsands area.

The oilsands monitoring program looks at more locations, including points on smaller rivers flowing through the oilsands region before they are diluted in the large Athabasca River. However, this detailed data is not included in the index.

Bruce Maclean, who co-ordinates the Community Based Monitoring Program for both the Athabasca Chipewyan and the Mikisew Cree First Nations, said the program uses community knowledge to detect changes over time (see sidebar).

“There’s no simple answer,” he said, “but the point is, the river system is not perfectly healthy.”

When asked if the index should have a disclaimer to indicate what’s not included in the reported values, Hebben noted several other chemical compounds are monitored in the province but not covered by the index. Besides hydrocarbons, he says other chemicals such as pharmaceuticals and industrial surfactants aren’t included.

“Some additional description certainly wouldn’t hurt and it’s something we could consider,” he said.

For now, the green index bar on the Athabasca River chart raises more questions than answers for people living downstream, though Maclean maintains that an index based on local residents’ reports rather than chemical tests would look very different.

“If you had a ‘First Nations from Fort Chip’ index on the Athabasca River, it would be red.”

Thumbnail photo courtesy of Kris Krüg, Flickr

Laura Stewart,

The editor responsible for this article is Deanna Tucker,

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