Oil sands energy development along Alberta’s Athabasca River is scarring the landscape and driving away wildlife. But is it contaminating the watershed? The Alberta government and the oil industry have argued that any toxins in the storied Athabasca are the result of naturally occurring seepage from bitumen deposits, not industrial development. Recent scientific analysis has disproven this claim.

In 2008, a team led by University of Alberta ecologists David Schindler and Erin Kelly tested snow and water samples to determine whether industry was contributing pollutants to the Athabasca and its tributaries. As the accompanying map shows, they found that many toxins were dramatically higher in snow near upgraders, where oil sands are processed, than in more remote locations.

Confirming what First Nations communities have long suspected, the study demonstrated that the oil industry releases 13 elements considered “priority pollutants” into the Athabasca watershed. Official guidelines for the protection of aquatic life were exceeded for cadmium, copper, lead, mercury, nickel, silver and zinc.

The findings sharply contradict those of a joint industry/government agency charged with monitoring water quality downstream from the oil sands. Independent panels appointed by the Alberta and federal governments, however, confirmed Schindler and Kelly’s findings. “What we did was not rocket science,” says Schindler. “We simply exposed that the propaganda spewed by industry and government was not based on fact.”

Both levels of governments are now overhauling how they monitor the impact of industry on the Athabasca watershed. But Schindler and Kelly are calling for additional studies to explore the link, if any, between increasing pollution and fish deformities observed in the Athabasca, as well as concerns about human health.