Scratching the surface of water quality guidelines: From agriculture to oilsands


Scratching the surface of water quality guidelines: From agriculture to oilsands

By Jason Unger
Staff Counsel, Environmental Law Centre

In the wake of James Cameron’s visit, and with the knowledge that the next Avatar installment is to take place underwater, it seems like an appropriate time to talk about surface water quality in Alberta.   To be blunt, the guidelines and monitoring of surface water quality need to be updated.

What justifies this update, you might ask?  The need for review is twofold:  first, the specific substances in the surface water quality guidelines need to be more inclusive and second, the extent of the province’s monitoring system needs to be assessed and augmented to ensure we are collecting sufficient amounts of information.

Consider the following:

  1. A study published this year indicated an increase level of gender modifying proteins in longnose dace (a native minnow) in two Alberta waterways.   This was likely the result of surface water contaminants that included synthetic estrogen, and steroids, -substances currently not monitored or incorporated in surface water quality guidelines. (See Jeffries et al. “Presence of natural and anthropogenic organic contaminants and potential fish health impacts along two river gradients in Alberta, Canada. Environmental Toxicology and Chemistry, 2010; DOI: 10.1002/etc.265, http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2010/07/100729122332.htm)
  2. A government review in 2005 indicated that only 14 of  44 pesticides detected in Alberta surface waters had guidelines related to protection of aquatic life.  (See Alberta Environment, Overview of Pesticide Data in Alberta Surface Water Since 1995 (Edmonton:  Alberta Environment, 2005).  Online:  Alberta Environment , at p. 47.)
  3. The same 2005 government review notes that if we had a cumulative acceptable pesticide concentration level like the European Union, 12.5% of the samples would exceed it.  (See Alberta Environment, Overview of Pesticide Data in Alberta Surface Water Since 1995 (Edmonton:  Alberta Environment, 2005).  Online:  Alberta Environment , at p. 51.)
  4. Surface water quality guidelines as they relate to areas that may be impacted by oilsands waste streams are insufficient.  The Guidelines don’t cover napthenic acids and the adequacy of guidelines for bitumen, benzene, phenols, and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons need to be reviewed.  These substances have various acute, chronic and endocrine disrupting impacts on aquatic systems that have been subject to a significant amount of research.  (See Allen.  E.W.  “Process water treatment in Canada’s oil sands industry:  I .  Target pollutants and treatment objectives”. J. Environ. Eng Sci 7: 123-138 (2008). Online:  Natural Resources Canada 

In recent news the federal and provincial governments have struck scientific review panels to review monitoring in the oilsands area. This is good news (if one assumes the panels will prescribe an appropriate monitoring system), but the rest of the province needs a similar review.

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