A renowned Alberta water scientist is urging the federal government to take action after he discovered deformities in fish in the Athabasca River downriver from oil sands developments bear a striking resemblance to ones found in fish after spills in U.S. waters.
University of Alberta ecologist Dr. David Schindler said the only way to know for sure which petrochemicals — and in what concentrations — cause the deformities is to conduct whole ecosystem experiments at the Experimental Lakes Area (ELA) in Northern Ontario.
"I propose that the ELA site and laboratory should be kept open to conduct these important experiments, which have implications for future effects of oil extraction and transport in or near both marine and freshwater ecosystems," Schindler wrote in a letter to Environment Minister Peter Kent and Fisheries Minister Keith Ashfield.
The ELA was shuttered on March 31 after its funding was cut in last year's budget. The Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) says it is in negotiations with other parties to take over the operation of the one-of-a-kind facility. The government will save $2-million a year by off-loading the outdoor laboratory made up of 58 small pristine lakes.
Schindler cited a number of studies that looked into the effects of oil and chemical contamination on fish after the Exxon Valdez spill in Alaska and the Deepwater Horizon accident in the Gulf of Mexico, as well as in the lower Athabasca River. He included photos of fish from the Athabasca with two tails, bulging eyeballs and gaping sores.
"In both the Gulf of Mexico and the Athabasca River, the high incidence of malformations and the grotesque appearance of some of the fish make consumers reluctant to eat them," wrote Schindler. He added that was a threat to the Gulf of Mexico's commercial fishery and the Athabasca's subsistence fishery.
Schindler's "eureka moment" came last week when he was forwarded an article about a study done on fish in the Gulf of Mexico.
"I was really struck with how similar some of those malformations were. And of course, they'd come on in only a little over a year since that Gulf spill," Schindler told the CBC.
The timing of the letter is hard to ignore. It comes hard on the heels of the ELA's closure with a September 1 deadline looming for Ottawa to find a new operator or return the property to the province of Ontario. Schindler is a vocal member of the advocacy group "Save ELA."
Asked if this was just a ploy to keep the facility open, Schindler responded: "That's exactly what they said when I proposed that acid rain was a problem in 1974."
Research from the ELA was instrumental in helping Canada and the U.S. negotiate, draft and sign the Acid Rain Treaty of 1991.
For Ottawa's part, Environment Canada insisted it is taking its responsibilities around the oil sands seriously.
"Our government launched a comprehensive oil sands monitoring plan that enhances the monitoring of water, air, land and biodiversity," Kent spokesperson Rob Taylor wrote to the CBC.
DFO said it is happy with the freshwater science being done at other facilities across the country.
"On the Experimental Lakes Area, the government continues to actively work towards establishing a new operator for the ELA site so that research there can continue," wrote Ashfield spokesperson Erin Filliter.
Schindler is glad to hear that.
"Frankly, I would like to see the Experimental Lakes Area funded independently of DFO. It's always been a Cinderella project and for 30 years DFO has been a very bad stepmother."