SETAC Globe - Environmental Quality Through Science
  14 February 2013
Volume 14 Issue 2

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Canadian Oil Sands Special Symposium in Long Beach

Richard A. Frank, Environment Canada and Jonathan W. Martin, University of Alberta

natural oil sand deposit
Natural oil sand deposit exposed to weathering processes by Athabasca River.

The Lower Athabasca Region of Alberta, Canada, contains the world’s third largest proven oil reserve in the form of bitumen, a highly biodegraded and viscous form of petroleum. The large scale of development, and the unique processes used to mine, extract and upgrade the bitumen have led to many questions regarding potential impacts on surrounding ecosystems and human health. The Canada federal and Alberta provincial governments have begun to deliver on promises of a new, world-class monitoring system, and many research programs are now addressing the most pressing research questions on environmental toxicology and chemistry of the oil sands industry.

SETAC has hosted an oil sands session since 2008, and on 14 November 2012, the Canadian oil sands session returned as a full-day special symposium at the SETAC North America annual meeting in Long Beach. The multidisciplinary and interdisciplinary nature of the presentations provided an excellent arena for SETAC attendees to follow the most recent burning questions and advances in this diverse scientific field. The theme for this recent SETAC meeting was “Catching the Next Wave: Advancing Science through Innovation and Collaboration,” and the presentations in this session, from a multidisciplinary group of chemists, biologists, toxicologists, engineers, academics and government researchers, exemplified the true spirit of a SETAC conference. The platform and poster topics commanded keen interest, especially given recent media and political attention that has focused on the development of Canada’s oil sands or on pipelines carrying bitumen into the United States.

sand deposits
Aerial view of oil sands surface mining development.

The morning platform session of the Canadian oil sands special symposium featured presentations highlighting research on reclamation strategies and environmental impact monitoring. Oil sands process-affected water (OSPW) is known to be toxic to aquatic and terrestrial biota, and extensive research is underway attempting to reduce its toxicity as well as to better understand the toxicity of individual components within the complex mixtures of dissolved organic compounds. Research conducted in collaboration between the University of Saskatchewan (Saskatoon) and the University of Alberta (Edmonton) was presented, highlighting findings over the past several years that support ozonation, UV treatment and other advanced oxidation techniques as strong candidates for remediation approaches to remove the acute and chronic toxicity in OSPW.

A presentation from DELTARES (Netherlands) proposed that gas production caused by microbial degradation of OSPW could significantly increase tailings pond volumes, in addition to mobilizing residual bitumen, and research out of the Helmholtz Centre for Environmental Research in Leipzig, Germany, proposed the use of the SPEAR model to predict the toxicity of oil sands contaminants.

Four presentations by scientists from Environment Canada outlined recent research conducted under the Joint Alberta-Federal Oil Sands Monitoring Program. In the first presentation, a survey of snow samples collected in the oil sands region indicated that aerial dispersal distance of oil sands contaminants was greater than initially reported and that metal concentrations are higher than estimated by emission levels. Environment Canada scientists also assessed the toxicological significance of atmospheric deposition by examining whether melted snow (collected from areas close to oil sands stacks and mines) could affect fathead minnow embryos and larvae. In the third presentation, which was also mentioned by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, researchers from Environment Canada and Queen’s University reported that total polycyclic aromatic compound fluxes (sum of unsubstituted and alkylated PAH as well as dibenzothiophenes) in dated sediment cores of five small isolated lakes in the oil sands area had increased from 2.5 to 23 fold, compared to pre-1960 levels. In the fourth presentation, Environment Canada scientists were able to confirm alterations in fish health downstream of industrial development within one of the tributary streams, as demonstrated in previous studies conducted in 2000–01. Although development on this tributary had increased significantly since the initial studies, alterations did not appear to be significantly increased from the earlier studies.

sand deposits
Aerial view of oil sands surface mining development; Athabasca River in foreground.

The afternoon platform session of the Canadian oil sands special symposium featured presentations highlighting recent research on advancing understanding of the ecotoxicology of oil sands waste materials as well as on advancements in analytical-detection methods. Research out of the University of Saskatchewan and the University of Waterloo assessed the toxicity of oil sands naphthenic acids to algae and fish, respectively, attempting to identify mechanisms of toxic action. Research out of the University of Prince Edward Island examined fish exposed to various sources of OSPW between 1995 and 2012, assessing fin erosion and antibody production, among other endpoints. Research out of the University of Alberta assessed the immunotoxicity of OSPW towards several animal species, with a focus on extracted and commercial naphthenic acids.

Environment Canada scientists characterized polyurethane foam (PUF) disk passive air samplers, at multiple field sites, against high volume samplers for investigating polycyclic aromatic compounds (PACs), and were used to generate spatial maps of PAC air concentrations in the Athabasca oil sands region. In another study, attempts by Environment Canada scientists and their collaborators to differentiate polar organic compounds in groundwater resulting from the natural weathering of oil sand, from compounds originating from industrial OSPW, have potentially identified chemical profiles unique to natural and anthropogenic sources through a complementary suite of analytical techniques, including hig- resolution mass spectrometry and multi-dimensional gas chromatography. Researchers from Plymouth University have identified a class of aromatic acids within OSPW that may exhibit estrogenic effects and are trying to further elucidate this complex mixture. Research at the University of Alberta is also making progress on further characterizing complex oil sand mixtures by combining HPLC with ultra-high resolution mass spectrometry. Ultrasensitive applications of HPLC-QTOF to monitoring of naphthenic acids in the Athabasca River provided the first accurate quantitative information for naphthenic acids, demonstrating that concentrations are 100 times lower than previously reported.

The preceding summary only highlights a few of the topics covered in the special symposium. The platform presentations were very well attended, and the concluding poster social provided all of the attendees opportunities to discuss the day’s topics over some California wine. Hopefully these discussions will continue after another year of research progress at the 2013 SETAC North America annual meeting in Nashville, Tennessee.

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