Last week, we wrote about the remarkable paper in Science where a dozen scientists called for a ban on mountaintop removal mining due to the practice's harmful effects on the environment and on human health. There's an even greater environmental crime being perpetrated north of the border, but at least for the moment the semi-equivalent scientists aren't showing quite as much spine.
A much less publicized paper and accompanying commentary (PDF, sub's required) were recently released in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences on the high concentrations of various toxic chemical compounds found in the Athabasca River in Alberta as a result of enormous tar sands mining operations. Let's focus on the commentary, as there isn't much point in writing a commentary on someone else's research unless you have something to say. Right? Well, these particular scientists, while clearly aware of the damage being done to the region as dirty bitumen is pulled from the ground, don't call for a ban on anything:
"Currently, the majority of bitumen is recovered by surface-mining practices that require the clearing of large areas of land, resulting in loss of habitat, including migration corridors and breeding grounds for terrestrial and aquatic species. Methods for mitigating and remediating these effects are under development, but even when remediated the habitat will be considerably different from its previous state. These externalities are costs that should be considered when developing this resource."
Pragmatic Advocacy, or Something
The three authors of the commentary go on to discuss the billion-plus cubic feet of "oil sands process water" (read: really dirty liquid that you wouldn't want to stand near let alone drink) in the tailings ponds in the Athabasca region, and the extremely high concentrations of damaging things like polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons that appear to be finding their way into the ecosystem. The authors conclude:
"Global demand for oil and the resulting economic potential mean that development of oil sands will continue. This development has the potential to impact society and the environment significantly. It is essential that any detrimental effects be mitigated as much as possible and that development proceed in a manner that minimizes effects on the health and welfare of the environment, wildlife, and humans like."
One could see this as pragmatic, I suppose. Yes, tar sands development—right, sorry—OIL sands development is certainly likely to continue in the foreseeable future. But I'm not sure why one can't be pragmatic and idealistic at the same time.
In the Science paper, the authors asserted that "Regulators should no longer ignore rigorous science." Also, “Mining permits are being issued despite the preponderance of scientific evidence that impacts are pervasive and irreversible and that mitigation cannot compensate for losses." The contrast between the two is striking.
I don't mean to imply that every scientific inquiry should carry with it some sort of strong advocacy message. If you are an expert in waterway toxicology, and you want to figure out what's going on in the Athabasca and then publish, go nuts. That's basically what the authors of the original paper did. Fine.
I would like to think, though, that when an expert is faced with such a "preponderance of scientific evidence" — and believe me, there's a preponderance in Alberta just as there is in Appalachia — that it might inspire something beyond just a bland statement about trying to mitigate the problem as much as possible.
Follow the Money
And there's something else going on here. As I read the PNAS commentary, I couldn't help but think about the thoroughly reported book by Andrew Nikiforuk, Tar Sands: Dirty Oil and the Future of a Continent. He outlines any number of hackles-raising connections between authorities in Alberta and Canada and the enormous oil and gas companies that are currently raping a big chunk of the world's third largest watershed. Just because I like conspiracies, I checked the PNAS authors' acknowledgments.
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