The Foul Legacy of the Tar Sands: Lakes Turned Into Cancer Sites

Back in 2010, residents near the shores of Canada’s Lake Athabasca called on the government to commission an independent study about the impact of the tar sands development in northern Alberta and Saskatchewan on the environment. Lake Athabasca is located downstream from one of the major tar sands developments and residents, who had found more and more fish with deformities (including huge tumors), demanded that a system of environmental monitoring be put in place and an investigation be carried out.

On Monday, the study resulting from these concerns was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) and the verdict is clear: tar sands are bad for our health and for the environment.

In the study, Canadian researchers found that, since the 1960s when the tar sands development was started, the level of pollutants — specifically, of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), which have been shown to adversely affect birds and aquatic organisms — has risen in six freshwater lakes. By examining sediment from five lakes within a 22-mile radius of the tar sands and one remote lake about 60 miles north, scientists found that PAH levels are now 2.5-23 times greater than than had been around 1960.

In the past decades, there has been a huge increase in developing the tar sands, as these are viewed as an increasingly important part of the world’s oil reserves at a time of rising energy prices and insatiable demand.

The tar sands in northern Alberta and Saskatchewan are the third largest reserve in the world and contain 97 percent of Canada’s reserves. Some speculate that Canada has been drawing heavily on the tar sands, and overlooking the environmental impact, as a way to “cushion the Canadian economy from shocks in global energy prices.”

Tar Sands Development Has Made Wildlife Ponds As Polluted As Urban Ones

The title of the study is “Legacy of a half century of Athabasca oil sands development recorded by lake ecosystems.” Based on the dirty evidence in once pristine lakes, that “legacy” is one we don’t want.

Indeed, the scientists’ long-term findings are all the more crucial as the tar sands industry has contended that pollution is “natural.” PAHs can be found in coal, crude oil, petroleum and in products made from fossil fuels, such as creosote and asphalt; they can also be released into the air when fossil fuels and organic matter are burned and are produced by volcanoes and forest fires.

But the researchers found, since 1978 (when large-scale production of tar sands got underway), that the levels of PAH deposits have been “steadily rising” from what they had been at for centuries. As the study simply states,

Because of the striking increase in PAHs, elevated primary production, and zooplankton changes, these oil sands lake ecosystems have entered new ecological states completely distinct from those of previous centuries.

“We’re not saying these are poisonous ponds. But it’s going to get worse. It’s not too late but the trend is not looking good,” as the study’s lead author, John P. Smol, a professor of biology at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario, said in the New York Times. The wildlife ponds have become as contaminated as those in urban areas, he also noted.

The results of the Canadian scientists’ study make it even more clear why we need to stop the construction of the Keystone XL Pipeline which is to transport oil down through the western U.S. to refineries along the Gulf Coast. Who knows what damage the pipeline could do to so many lakes, ponds and other freshwater sources; to our flora and fauna, to us?


Related Care2 Coverage

After Completely Ignoring Them, Harper Agrees to Meet with First Nation Activists

Tell President Obama: Just Say No to the Keystone XL Pipeline

Deformed Fish Found Downstream of Tar Sands Mines


Photo by howlmontreal/Flickr


David King
David K4 years ago

part two

President Obama said during his re-election campaign that he would cut over $4 billion of the subsidies going to Big Oil. On Wednesday, he releases the first budget of his new term, so let's work together to remind the president to follow through on his promise.

Sign our petition today to tell President Obama to end the Big Oil Billion Dollar Bonanza.
(please cut and paste the link to sign the petition)

David King
David K4 years ago

Congress has drafted a budget — three of them in fact. And tomorrow President Obama will release his budget to spend more than 1 trillion of our dollars. We need to ensure he makes good on his campaign promise to cut billions in subsidies to Big Oil.

Not only are these subsidies a drain on our budget, they are helping wreck the planet by ensuring we rely on fossil fuels for our energy needs — when clean, green alternatives are more than capable of powering our lives.

Please sign our petition today asking President Obama to end the Big Oil Billion Dollar Bonanza by cutting these taxpayer-funded subsidies from his budget proposal. Your signature will be delivered directly to the president.

Big Oil doesn't need the money, and we don't have the money to give. The five biggest oil companies on the planet made more than $110 billion in profits last year, while the President and Congress have been forced to make major budget cuts to important programs that protect our people and the planet.

Even worse, these subsidies make all of us investors in the biggest polluters on the planet. Each year the planet is warming faster than the year before, causing more extreme weather events, record heat waves, wildfires, droughts and floods across the planet. Burning more oil will only make the planet get warmer faster, and lead to even worse disasters than Superstorm Sandy.

President Obama said during his re-election campaign that he would cut over $4 billion of the s

L X4 years ago

All oil transportation systems spill. Period. No exceptions. Animals and water supplies get oiled, land gets ruined, homes have to be evacuated. Exxon-Mobil and BP have been the worst offenders, but no fossil fuel company seems to care about the consequences of producing, transporting or burning fossil fuel.

We need solar panels on every building, hybrid and all-electric cars, more efficient and biodegradable car batteries, windmills on every sizable land plot, and wind turbine farms where allowable.

Ruth R.
Ruth R4 years ago

Thank you for the article. Posted to facebook, twitter.

Don Aitken
Don Aitken4 years ago

This is what is supposed to be the backbone of our Canadian Economy.

Anne F.
Anne F4 years ago

Time to make drillers and refiners avoid pollution by PAHs. Inspect downwind and downstream and FINE the companies that dirty our air and water.

Jude Hand
Judith Hand4 years ago


Christopher M.
Christopher M.4 years ago

Where is the hydrogen fuel?

Carrie Anne Brown

thanks for sharing

Alan Alan Apurim
Alan Alan Apurim4 years ago

. . . Take a "tour" of the source of the TransCanada Keystone XL pipeline's Tar Sands sludge, the area discussed, using ... enter "Ft. McMurray, Alberta" into the search, and it will give you a zoomed-in-map centered on that town of (2005) about 40,000 people. Switch to "Satellite View" (upper right icon in your view) and zoom out a click of the negative icon in the navigation set (in the upper-left of the window). Then "drag" the map with click-and-hold motions downward to move your view northward, following the Athabasca River. National highway 63 is flanked by Range Road 101 and crossed by Voyegeur Road and Base Plant Road at the heart of the destroyed area.
. . . Zoom all the way in (click the icon or double-click the view itself) to see in detail individual trucks, tanks, and polluted drainage ponds. Half-click-and-hold and move your cursor to drag the view any direction to see more. The "development" is on both sides of the northward-flowing Athabasca River which you can follow to Lake Athabasca and northwestward with the Peace River to the Great Slave Lake and on into the Mackenzie River. The Wood Buffalo National Park and indigenous peoples of these northern forests are all affected by the pollution of the Tar Sands hydrofracking.