Even short exposure to diluted bitumen can be deadly to young salmon, study finds

A spill of diluted bitumen puts the survival of young salmon at risk even if the fish end up in clean water following exposure to the oil product, says new research from the University of Guelph.

Research comes as Trans Mountain pipeline expansion project remains deadlocked following Appeal Court decision

Spawning sockeye salmon make their way up B.C.'s Adams River in 2014. A spill of diluted bitumen puts the survival of young salmon at risk even if the fish end up in clean water following exposure to the oil product, new research has found. (Jonathan Hayward/Canadian Press)

A spill of diluted bitumen would put the survival of young salmon at risk even if the fish end up in clean water following exposure to the oil product, says new research from the University of Guelph.

Researchers said they made the conclusions after exposing four groups of sockeye salmon eggs to four different amounts of water-soluble diluted bitumen and observed the young fish after the eggs hatched for up to eight months in clean water.

"We saw a lot of changes during the exposure,'' said Sarah Alderman, a post-doctorate researcher at the University of Guelph's department of integrative biology.

"We found a whole suite of effects from delayed hatching to increased mortality, increased developmental deformities and changes in growth and energy stores in the fish.''

Researchers say they found 'a whole suite of effects' from exposing the fish to dilbit, 'from delayed hatching to increased mortality, increased developmental deformities and changes in growth and energy stores in the fish.' (The Canadian Press)

She said almost 50 per cent of the salmon exposed to the highest amount of diluted bitumen, or dilbit, died during the first two months after they were moved to clean water and observed for up to eight months.

"We found for about the first two months after moving them to clean water we had really high mortality even though they are not being exposed to the dilbit anymore,'' said Alderman. "We saw mortality as high as 50 per cent during that two-month period. Every day there's more dead and more dead.''

Four tests, 1,000 eggs

The research was published this month in the peer-reviewed journal Aquatic Toxicology.

About 1,000 sockeye eggs were used in each of the four exposure tests, with the amounts ranging from four micrograms of TPAH — a component of diluted bitumen — per litre of water, to 35 micrograms per litre, to 100 micrograms per litre, Alderman said. The fourth group of eggs was not exposed to the product.

Alderman said the largest exposure amount of 100 micrograms per litre reflected the level of oil products measured along the shoreline of the Gulf of Mexico following the Deepwater Horizon spill in 2010.

Fireboat crews battle the blazing offshore oil rig Deepwater Horizon off the coast of Louisiana in April 2010. ((U.S. Coast Guard/Reuters) )

She said mortality among the unexposed sockeye eggs was less than two per cent.

In the exposed fish that survived the diluted bitumen exposure, the researchers found changes in brain development and overall performance levels, said Alderman.

"It's really affecting multiple body systems in lots of different ways," she said.

Research amid pipeline debate

The results from the study come as federal and provincial governments, First Nations, environmental groups and energy companies are locked in a contentious debate over the environmental and economic viability of the proposed expansion of the Trans Mountain pipeline from northern Alberta to Burnaby, B.C.

Kinder Morgan's Burnaby facility would pump nearly 900,000 barrels of diluted bitumen into tankers each day if the proposed Trans Mountain pipeline expansion goes ahead. (Rafferty Baker/CBC)

In a recent decision overturning the approval of the pipeline expansion, the Federal Court of Appeal said the National Energy Board unjustifiably excluded the consideration of marine shipping of bitumen in its approval process. The court said the board failed to consider its obligations under the Species at Risk Act in relation to southern resident killer whales.

First Nations said during the energy board's hearings that there were research and information gaps about a spill of diluted bitumen in a marine environment. The Federal Court ruling said there was nothing in the approval process that showed the government addressed those concerns

Bitumen has the consistency of crumbling asphalt and doesn't flow freely like oil. It needs to be diluted with another petroleum product to allow it to flow through pipelines.

The federal government agreed last June to buy the existing pipeline, the expansion project and terminals from Kinder Morgan Canada for $4.5 billion after the company threatened to walk away from the expansion project in April.

Alderman said the exposure levels of diluted bitumen were modelled on prospective amounts from potential pipeline spills. She said the research points to the need to have clean-up measures in place.

"There's a lot of dilbit being transported in pipelines and most of it is transported very safely,'' Alderman said. "But as this industry expands, the potential for spills increases. We're working to understand what to expect if it does happen.''

Bitumen has to be diluted with another petroleum product so it can flow through pipelines.

Independent study with producers

The Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers did not comment on the research, but in a statement it said it is part of a separate and ongoing independent study to "provide a better understanding of the behaviour of oil in the unlikely event of a spill on water.''

Last year, Alderman conducted research that concluded tiny amounts of diluted bitumen weakens the chances of migrating salmon to make it back to the rivers and streams of their birth to spawn.

Sockeye salmon in the Adams River, a tributary to B.C.'s Thompson and Fraser Rivers. (CBC)

Exposure to dilbit hinders the swimming performance of salmon, causes their heart muscle to stiffen and damages their kidneys, her research found.

Alderman's research is funded by the federal government's National Contaminants Advisory Group, which is part of the Department of Fisheries and Oceans.

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Corrections

  • A previous version of this story said the substance used in tests was diluted bitumen. In fact, the tests were conducted with TPAH, a component of diluted bitumen.
    Sep 12, 2018 10:54 AM PT

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