Believing in clean oilsands like believing in ‘magic fairies,’ top scientist says

 By Tom Spears, The Ottawa Citizen April 13, 2013

OTTAWA — Claims that Alberta’s oilsands are environmentally harmless are “lies” and won’t convince anyone in Washington, one of this country’s most famous ecologists said Friday.

Political leaders in Alberta and Ottawa “seem to think that Americans believe in magic fairies — just shut your eyes and say the oilsands are clean four times and it happens,” said David Schindler of the University of Alberta.

He said this reflects the current federal ideology — not anti-science, but “anti-some kinds of science. Anything with ‘environmental’ in it seems to be anathema.”

Schindler, a freshwater scientist, was speaking at Carleton University. He has been a leading researcher on pollutants ranging from phosphates to acid rain to toxic waste, and in 2001 won the Gerhard Herzberg Canada Gold Medal, a national award given to the country’s top scientist.

Showing his audience an aerial photo of a scarred landscape in oilsands country, he said environmental assessments commissioned by oil companies show there is no impact and those same companies claim the damage is later remediated.

“Why are people allowed to lie to the public like this? I just don’t understand this. We have to challenge them,” he said. “Obviously the people who used to challenge them, the civil servants, are no longer allowed to.

“If you got towns around the world to nominate the village idiot from every town and flew them over the oilsands, and asked them: ‘Yes or no, is this a significant impact?’ I think I know what the answer would be.

“It gives you an indication of how stupid this must seem to people in Washington. They must think we’ve all just fallen off a turnip truck … We’ve had premiers and prime ministers and ministers of the environment spouting this stuff.”

He said tailings ponds in the region total 170 square kilometres, forming “a toxic Great Lake.”

A few years ago, Schindler decided it was time to test claims that the oilsands industry is benign. He joined toxicologist Peter Hodson of Queen’s University and Jeff Short, a pollution chemist with experience from the massive Exxon Valdez oil spill.

They took snow samples up and down the Athabasca River valley to see what airborne pollutants were falling, in an echo of old acid rain research. Melted down, the snow showed more toxins near the oilsands and downstream than in clean snow upstream. They published results in the journals Nature and PNAS.

“The (samples) near the oilsands actually had an oil scum floating on top of the melted snow,” said Schindler, showing a photo of oily droplets on water. Also, “when it starts to melt in the spring the snow turns black.”

Yet federal and Alberta politicians branded opposition the work of “radicals,” he said.

Schindler was incensed, and still is. “Suddenly if you want to protect the environment you’re an enemy of the state,” he said. He was educated as the Joe McCarthy era was ending and said today’s political climate is similar. “This just makes my spine crawl.”

People keep pulling deformed and diseased fish out of the water downstream from oilsands but we don’t know enough about the causes, he said. He believes this would be an ideal project for the Environmental Lakes Area, but these small field labs on lakes are being closed by Fisheries and Oceans to save money.

At Fisheries and Oceans Canada “there’s nobody who knows any science in about the upper 10 levels of management … They’re accountants, they’re business people.”

Schindler worked for Fisheries and Oceans in the 1970s and 1980s as founding director of the ELA.

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