Mining of oil sands contaminates water sources

11 January 2013

Quite a few years ago I attended an ASLO meeting in Alberta, Canada, at a time when the next big thing in oil production was the extraction of oil from tar sands in the Athabasca region.  The debate was a lot similar to that around the issue of fracking, denial on one side and lots of concern and worry about environmental impacts on the other.  However, like the current E-tolling saga in South Africa – the debate will eventually die off and the mining or tolling will simply go ahead – i.e. Big Capital wears down the opposition over time and get their way in the end.

But, I digress, back to Canada:  a recent report (Proceedings of the National Academies of Science) has revealed that the mining process has indeed introduced contaminants such as polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAH’s) and trace metals into surface waters.  Oil production in the region is set to double in the next decade.  Draw your own conclusions.

Staying in Canada, the FLOW (Forum for Leadership on Water) organization has correctly identified water quality, along with climate change and the obvious availability constraint associated with water, as a component of the global water crisis.  FLOW Program Manager Nancy Goucher said that:

Water quality is [also] an important issue because it can influence clean water supplies and affect the health of our ecosystems. Up to 95% of water in developing countries is polluted to some degree, but the problem also extends to richer countries. One in three U.S. lakes are unfit for swimming, largely due to runoff pollutants and septic discharge.

China has acknowledged that all seven of its major river systems are grossly polluted – and there is a nice video on this current disaster at this link.

On the CyanoAlert front, New Zealand’s Lake Henley (Otago) has been closed to all recreational pursuits, while the warnings for Lake Waihola, the Tomahawk lagoon and Taieri River at Henley have been lifted. In the Wellington area, Horizons Regional Councilis advising people to take care at the popular swimming spot, Horseshoe Bend near Tokomaru, this weekend as council monitoring shows that there is currently a large amount of blue/green algae present in the river.  In Manawatu, swimmers and dog owners are being warned to take care around the Oroua River near Feilding after the discovery of cyanobacteria.

All of these issues occur as a result of eutrophication, excessive levels of plant nutrients getting into our waterways, lakes and reservoirs and fuelling the growth of noxious algae.  This scenario is well-known to those who manage Cape Cod’s waterways:

Extensive studies show that Cape Cod bays, rivers and streams face significant water quality contamination due to excessive nutrients, such as nitrogen, emanating from septic systems and other sources. Excess nitrogen accelerates the growth of nuisance plants, weeds, and algae, destroying the habitat that supports native finfish, shellfish, and plants, as well as making the water unsuitable for human recreation. Nutrient pollution not only causes environmental harm, but has serious potential economic impacts, including a decline in fishing, shell-fishing, tourism and property values.

In order to try and get a handle on how to fix this problem, the not in-substantial amount of US$3.3.5 million is to be spent on formulating a water quality management plan.  This will be provided by the the Massachusetts Water Pollution Abatement Trust.



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