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Federal scientists uncover evidence that oilsands contaminants travel further than expected

By Margaret Munro, Postmedia News November 13, 2012

The development of Alberta’s oilsands is the subject of some contention nationally.

The development of Alberta’s oilsands is the subject of some contention nationally.

Photograph by: © Todd Korol / Reuters, Reuters

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Federal scientists have uncovered evidence that contaminants wafting out Alberta’s oilsands operations are collecting on the bottom of remote lakes up to 100 kilometres away.

The chemical “legacy” in the lake sediments indicates that oilsands pollution is travelling further than expected and has been for decades.

“The footprint of the deposition is potentially larger than we might have anticipated,” says Derek Muir, a senior Environment Canada scientist, who will present the findings Wednesday at an international toxicology conference in the U.S. where the oilsands are a hot topic.

A team led by federal scientist Jane Kirk, also of Environment Canada, will report that snow within 50 kilometres of oilsands operations is contaminated with a long list of  “priority pollutants” including a neurotoxin that “bioaccumulates” in food webs.

Kirk’s colleague Joanne Parrott will report that melt water from snow collected near oilsand plants is toxic to newly hatched minnows in the lab.

But perhaps the most dramatic findings is that pollutants called polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, or PAHs, are building up in lake sediments up to 100 kilometres from the oilsands operations.

“That means the footprint is four times bigger than we found,” says David Schindler, an aquatic scientist at the University of Alberta. He and his colleague Erin Kelly made headlines in 2010 when they reported that airborne heavy metals and other pollutants from oilsands operations were contaminating the landscape up to 50 kilometres away.

Their findings have been criticized by oilsands proponents, but the Environment Canada scientists report they have not only “confirmed” the Schindler-Kelly findings but found evidence PAHs can travel even farther.

Muir, a world authority on chemical contaminants, teamed up with Queen’s University researchers to look at the sediments that have been collecting for a century on the bottom of six remote lakes, five of them within 35 kilometres of the oilsands and the sixth lake 100 kilometres away. The lakes are undisturbed and received only atmospheric inputs, the scientists say.

They found that PAHs in the sediments “increased precipitously beginning at the early 1970s” and have climbed 2.5 to 23 times over pre-1960 levels.

“It is quite distinct in all the lakes,” Muir said in a telephone interview from California where he will present the findings at the annual meeting of the North American Society of Environmental Toxicology and Chemistry.

He says the rising levels of PAHs in the sediments “seem to parallel the development of the oilsands industry.”

In four of the five shallow lakes located within 35 kilometres of oilsands operations the highest PAHs levels observed are from the most recent sediments collected in 2009-2010.

PAHs also turned up in sediments Namur Lake, located in a remote provincial park and known for Lake Trout, Arctic Grayling, and Northern Pike. Muir said samples taken about 100 kilometres northwest of the main oilsands operations show PAHs levels have more than tripled in Namur Lake’s sediments since the 1960s.

“To see something outside the 50-kilometre zone was a bit of a surprise,” Muir said. “Having said that I have to caution it was only one lake.”

He said the PAHs increasing in the lake sediments have a different signature – or ”fingerprint” – than PAHs generated by forest fires and other natural processes.

In the 1970s and 1980s the PAHs shifted to a more “petrogenic, in other words petroleum oriented, and more combustion source,” Muir said, noting that the chemicals could be from both upgraders, which convert oilsands bitumen into crude oil, and oilsands mining operations that release petroleum-based hydrocarbons into the atmosphere.

The PAHs levels in the sediments, with the exception of the lake closest to the oilsands operation, were lower than “guideline limits,” says Muir.

“So overall we don’t think that the PAHs have yet reached a level in the sediments of these lakes where they are going to be toxic to aquatic life,” said Muir. He notes that contamination levels are comparable to those around urban areas.

But he said “there is definitely a concern about it.” And more work in underway to sample sediments in other remote lakes in the region.

His colleague Jane Kirk built on Schindler and Kelly’s work by testing for heavy metals and other contaminants in snow at 90 sites located up to 200 kilometres from the oilsands plants. She reports that the “aerial loadings” of 13 “priority pollutants” were 1.5 to 13 times higher at sites within 50 kilometres of the upgraders and highest within 10 kilometres.

Muir says the elevated levels of methyl mercury is “probably the highest concern” because it is a neurotoxin that accumulates in food webs.

“We don’t really know the fate of the various metals including mercury as they go from snow, to melt water to run-off and then into the aquatic environment,” Muir said.

The Environment Canada work is part of the Joint Canada-Alberta Implementation Plan for Oilsands Monitoring. The federal and Alberta governments have billed it as a “transparent and accountable” system designed to improve understanding of the long-term cumulative effects of oilsands development.

Environment Canada earlier this month said scientists were not available to comment on their findings of contamination around the oilsands. The department’s media office arranged this week’s interviews with Muir and Parrott after Postmedia News obtained details of the reports the scientists will present at the U.S. conference on Wednesday.

Parrott and her colleagues in an Environment Canada lab have been exposing fathead minnows, which she describes as the “lab rat of the fish world”, to melt water from snow collected three to four kilometres from oilsands upgraders and mining operations. The snow was collected in 2011 and 2012 along the Athabasca River, which has several species of fish that have long been a dietary staple for aboriginal people in the region.

“The larval fish didn’t do very well in that snow at all,” says Parrott, who will report at the conference that melt water was “toxic to larval fathead minnows at 25 to 100 per cent.”

Once the melt water was diluted with water in the Athabasca River, Parrott says it was not longer toxic to the minnows.

She and her colleagues are expanding the testing to look at how young fish fare in the spring freshet and tributaries feeding into the Athabasca River.

Schindler says water in tributaries where young fish hatch in the spring can be largely melt water.

“My big concern is that slowly because of mortalities at spring melt, that this will erode the fishery, killing off the embryos,” says Schindler.

Parrott’s findings may explain why fish numbers the Muskeg River, a tributary of the Athabasca, have plummeted in recent decades, he said.

Schindler also says they may also explain why deformed fish are turning up in Lake Athabasca. “I think what could happen is that the few embryos that manage to survive, deformed as they are, struggle down to Lake Athabasca,” he said. While the deformed fish may not have a high load of contaminants, he said the fish look “so horrible” people won’t eat them. “I think that’s fair enough, they wouldn’t sell in Safeway,” says Schindler.

He says the Environment Canada scientists should not just present their findings at scientific conferences but also at the Joint Review Panel reviewing Shell’s proposed Jackpine oilsands mine expansion, 70 kilometres north of Fort McMurray.

Schindler would like the expansion delayed until the environmental impacts of existing oilsands operations are better understood.

“They should say: ‘Hey wait a minute, maybe we should get the monitoring system in place and see what the real state of the system is now,’ before this approval is made,” says Schindler.

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First Nations lead the way in Victoria protest against pipelines and oil sands - DefendTheCoast

First Nations lead the way in Victoria protest against pipelines and oil sands
First Nations are leading the way in British Columbia's opposition to pipelines, tankers and exploitation of the climate damaging oil sands
Protesters trickled in like salmon heading home—a few signs on the Canada Line at 5:30 in the morning, a big line up at the Bridgeport bus stop, a ferry full of protesters, all ages, a few costumes, lots of signs. I asked a man on the ferry if he planned on committing civil disobedience. “They’re having trouble figuring out what to do,” he said. “They’ve been given permission to protest on the lawn. Now they’re thinking about driving stakes into the lawn because that’s illegal.”
Eric Boyum, an eco-tourism operator in the Great Bear Rainforest offered a ride to several of us so we could avoid the over packed buses in Schwartz Bay. Boyum stated that tankers would destroy his business, Ocean Adventures, without an oil spill.
“The tankers would travel right through where I operate. They won’t be attractive to tourists.” Protecting his business is not his primary motivation.
“The First Nations in the area are like family to me,” he said. “They’ve subsisted there for thousands of years. Tankers are the biggest threat to their way of life that they’ve ever had.” He also feels responsible for the natural world. “Someone has to speak out for the animals,” he said. “The whales, bears and salmon don’t have a voice in this, but we can fight for them.”
David Schirk, a Vancouver carpenter and contractor, also caught a ride with Boyum. “We have to stop Harper,” he said. “The pipeline is committing us to 30 or 40 more years of fossil fuels. We don’t have that long.” He has noticed the impacts of climate change in his business. “Rainfall comes much harder than in the past,” he said. “Someone will call thinking they have a leak, but there’s no leak. Roofs, drain pipes and even the storm water system weren’t built to accommodate the intensity of rain that we now get on a regular basis.”
Joan Jaccard, a landscape designer, believes that the pipeline and tankers are a distraction from the largest problem of all: climate change. “Politicians need to start listening to the science,” she said. “Governments are reneging on their responsibility to do what is in the best interest of the nation and the world.”

Read more: First Nations lead the way in Victoria protest against pipelines and oil sands - DefendTheCoast

Occupy Victoria: a year later | VicNews


People’s Assembly of Victoria participant Anushka Nagji, above, is asked by a Victoria police constable to walk on the sidewalk as she passes out Occupy This Christmas bookmarks to passersby asking them to give generously to food banks and shelters last November on Government Street. Nagji spoke to the News this week about where the Occupy movement is a year later in Victoria.

Sharon Tiffin/News staff

By Roszan Holmen - Victoria News
Published: October 19, 2012 9:00 AM 
Updated: October 19, 2012 3:19 PM


At this time last year, Occupy landed in Victoria.

Tents, tarps and couches began to fill Centennial Square, launching the local incarnation of an already well-established international movement.

For six weeks, activists braved the fall weather before an injunction by the City of Victoria put an end to the encampment.

But even as tenters packed up and the square emptied last November, a common question buzzed on the lips of activists: what’s next?

“I really tried hard to keep it going by having assemblies and trying to raise issues I thought people could rally around,” said Robert Duncan, a member of the People’s Assembly of Victoria, which steered the protest by consensus. “People were swearing up and down that there was going to be a lot of camping again (in the) summer, but it didn’t happen.”

Inevitably the group dwindled, said Duncan, who works in a group home. “There is a lot of complacency. People don’t feel the issues are touching them in a major way – yet.”

So what happened to the movement?

One year later, the News caught up with four activists heavily involved with the People’s Assembly.

Read more: Occupy Victoria: a year later | VicNews

Still occupying our thoughts

 By Editorial - Victoria News

Published: October 19, 2012 7:00 AM

It’s been a year since a group of individuals calling themselves the People’s Assembly of Victoria gathered in Centennial Square in support of the global Occupy movement.

Looking back, many of us in the media found covering the group’s activities at times an exercise in frustration. As people accustomed to finding distinct themes, objectives, solutions and resolutions in our news coverage, we found it tricky to write about a loosely organized collection of individuals that seemed bent on refusing to be defined.

We saw divides emerge – a clear generation gap developed – and those willing to have a discussion about Occupy often found themselves in disagreement over what the movement stood for and what it hoped to accomplish.

But it wasn’t strictly about arguing that Wall Street is bad, that capitalism promotes corruption, or that the distribution of wealth increasingly favours the rich. People who chose to have a discussion, if they didn’t throw up their hands having failed to get their point across, sometimes found themselves taking new ideas away, or grateful for a chance to offer their perspective.

Encouraging communication between disparate groups or individuals may have been one of Occupy’s key accomplishments.

Interestingly, the website for the People’s Assembly of Victoria ( gives its supporters tips for being interviewed by the media. In general they speak to inclusivity and courteousness, sticking to specific topics instead of making blanket statements, and being pro-change, not anti-system.

It’s information that might have helped writers who, at the height of the protests last year, struggled to create a level of understanding about the local Occupy movement and why it was relevant in Victoria.

Little has changed since then in terms of the redistribution of wealth, either in the Capital Region or globally. That doesn’t necessarily mean Occupy failed. For an unfocused, unfunded gathering of malcontents, the movement was remarkably successful – it woke people up and changed the conversation.

B.C. has known for years of plan to import Chinese miners


  BY CRAIG MCINNES, VANCOUVER SUN OCTOBER 10, 2012   B.C. Premier Christy Clark didn’t mention during her trade mission to China last November that most of the coal mining jobs created by a $1.4-billion Chinese investment in B.C. would be filled by Chinese workers.

B.C. Premier Christy Clark didn’t mention during her trade mission to China last November that most of the coal mining jobs created by a $1.4-billion Chinese investment in B.C. would be filled by Chinese workers.

Photograph by: Jeff McIntosh , THE CANADIAN PRESS

How long does it take to train a coal miner?

Granted, at least in Canada, it’s been a while since all that was required was a strong back, a desperate need of a job and a high tolerance for dangerous and dirty work.

But five years? That’s how long the provincial government has known that a company proposing an underground coal mine near Tumbler Ridge in northeastern B.C. wanted to bring in experienced miners from China as part of its operating plan because of a lack of skilled underground miners here.

As Vancouver Sun reporter Peter O’Neil noted Wednesday, Premier Christy Clark didn’t mention during her trade mission to China last November that most of the coal mining jobs created by a $1.4-billion Chinese investment in B.C. would be filled by Chinese workers. But at least her officials should have known that the rationale given in 2007 by the Canadian Dehua International Mines Group for bringing in miners from China appears to be essentially unchanged in 2012, despite her government’s focus on jobs for British Columbians.

As O’Neil reported, the first of a group of 200 temporary Chinese workers approved by the federal government will be arriving in B.C. in the coming weeks to start work on one of four projects that could provide employment for 1,600 to 2,000 Chinese miners and an estimated 480 to 800 jobs for Canadians.

Read more: B.C. has known for years of plan to import Chinese miners

Oakland police chief seeks to fire two officers, discipline 42 others for misconduct during Occupy protests

Updated:   10/12/2012 09:00:43 PM PDT

Oakland police Chief Howard Jordan at a 2012 press conference (Laura A. Oda/Staff)


OAKLAND -- In the largest mass discipline in department history, police Chief Howard Jordan wants to reprimand 44 of his officers, including firing two, for various forms of misconduct in their aggressive handing of protesters during Occupy Oakland events in the past year.

Jordan announced the recommendations Friday morning as city officials released a much anticipated summary of internal affairs investigations sparked by complaints made against officers during the often violent protests.

Jordan also confirmed that it was one of his officers who fired a bean bag into the head of Iraq War veteran Scott Olsen, seriously injuring the protester, while also epitomizing what many said was the police department's unnecessary forceful reaction to the protests. Jordan refused to say if one of the two officers he believes should be fired is the officer who fired the bean bag at Olsen.


Read more: Oakland police chief seeks to fire two officers, discipline 42 others for misconduct during...

Velcrow Ripper's Occupy Love looks at the Global Spring


BREAKING: We're SO EXCITED to announce the Victoria premiere of  on December 5!     

Ethan Cox

Published: October 9, 2012, 2:57 pm - The concluding chapter in Canadian filmmaker Velcrow Ripper’s “Fierce Love” trilogy, Occupy Love – which premiered this week at the Vancouver International Film Festival — is a testament to a revolution as yet unfinished, and a plea not to succumb to hate, and instead place love at the centre of our struggles for a better world.

Although the film boasts an impressive collection of talking heads (including Naomi Klein, Judy Rebick, Bill McKibben and Jeremy Rifkin), Ripper and producers Ian MacKenzie and Nova Ami never let the film get bogged down by them. Instead, they lean heavily on ground level activists — from the Egyptian Spring to Occupy to the climate justice movement — to tell their own stories.

These are contextualized and framed by stunning visuals captured across several continents. In fact, it deserves to be restated: visually, this film is breathtaking. The cinematography and editing place a premium on beauty, and the viewer is effortlessly drawn along from arresting image to captivating idea without a moment’s lull to contemplate one’s dinner menu.

The film posits that the Arab Spring, the Occupy movement, the climate justice and Indigenous movements, the Indignados in Spain and many others are not isolated, but rather part of a single, global movement. At a time of profound crisis, when drastic change is needed to prevent our very extinction as a species, hope lies in our collective power, and great love for each other.

Read more: Velcrow Ripper's Occupy Love looks at the Global Spring

Chinese companies can sue BC for changing course on Northern Gateway, says policy expert

The Canada-China Foreign Investment Promotion and Protection Act (FIPPA), which will come into effect at the end of October, is Canada's biggest foreign trade treaty since NAFTA. What are its implications for BC?

 Posted: Oct 12th, 2012


china canada oil, fippa canada
Graphic by Craig Fleisch ( for The Vancouver Observer

A Canada-China investment treaty, known as FIPPA, will hamstring BC from negotiating a greater share of profits and creating regulations related to the proposed Enbridge Northern Gateway pipeline for the next 31 years once it comes into effect at the end of October, an international investment law expert warns. 

"This treaty, in effect, will pre-empt important elements of the debate of the Northern Gateway pipeline and may frustrate in a very significant way the ability of the current BC government or any future government—if the NDP were to win in spring—from stopping that pipeline or bargaining a better deal for BC," said Gus Van Harten, an Osgoode Law professor who specializes in international investment law.

Van Harten noted that arbitrators in foreign investment agreement disputes will most likely judge in favour of Chinese investors in cases where the host country attempts to impose new or updated regulations that may interfere with the investor's bottom line.

"If this treaty comes into effect, and there's any Chinese ownership whatsoever in assets related to this pipeline—minority ownership, ownership we generally don't know about—then Canada will be exposed to lawsuits under this treaty, because the BC government will be discriminating against a Chinese investor, which is prohibited by the treaty." 

The treaty will protect investors' rights for 31 years as of November 1.

The Northern Gateway is a controversial pipeline project proposed to run from the Athabasca oil sands in Alberta to the north coast of BC. It would build a twin pipeline running from Bruderheim, Alberta, to Kitimat, BC. 

Read more: Chinese companies can sue BC for changing course on Northern Gateway, says policy expert

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