David Schindler

David Schindler, a top Canadian scientist now taking on the oilsands, is profiled.

Five decades of doing science, advocating environmental policy

David Schindler, Killam Memorial professor of ecology at the University of Alberta, holds a deformed white fish caught in Lake Athabasca, near Fort Chipewyan, during a Sept. 16 press conference in Edmonton. (Jason Franson/Canadian Press)

Alberta and the federal government have both appointed panels of scientists to review the controversial findings from David Schindler's latest research about water pollution caused by oilsands development.

That is an extraordinary response for a science paper, even one published in a prestigious and peer-reviewed journal like the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

David Schindler: quick facts

Born: Aug. 3, 1940, in Fargo, N.D.

PhD: Oxford, 1966 (Rhodes Scholar)

Best job: Founding director, Experimental Lakes Area project in northwestern Ontario (started 1968)

Current job: Killam Memorial professor of ecology, University of Alberta, since 1989

Years as a government scientist: 22

Years as an academic scientist: 23

Most important environmental issue: "The rate at which the boreal forest is being savaged."

Future plans: "I am looking forward to someday seeing things done right so that I can relax and just do science. That's where the fun is, it isn't in hassling with politicians and that, which is to me rather like playing chess with a gorilla. The game is boring and you know you are going to win but you have got to be prepared to duck once in a while when they get angry and take a swing at you."

Schindler and his team of researchers from the University of Alberta and elsewhere found that oilsands development is contaminating the Athabasca River watershed, by both airborne and waterborne pathways. The scientists found that seven "priority pollutants" were at levels that exceed government guidelines for the protection of aquatic life.

The oilsands industry and the Alberta government have long argued that the naturally occurring bitumen is the source and claim the levels are too low to be a concern.

For Alberta Energy Minister Ron Liepert, the problem is Schindler.

"If you look back at the work that he has done in the past, I'm not surprised that this was the result," he told reporters.

Let's take Liepert's advice and look back. Schindler's list of accomplishments in science is a long one.

The early years

David Schindler was born in Fargo, N.D., in 1940. He grew up near Barnesville, in Minnesota lake country.

Science was a passion in high school but when he headed off to the University of Minnesota it was to study engineering, after being persuaded that field had better career prospects.

His engineering studies landed him a summer job back in Fargo, working for a biology professor on a research project.

His tasks included taking temperature readings manually. While waiting to get the next reading, Schindler would peruse the books in the professor's office. Those books would eventually send him down a new path.

During an experiment in August 1973, Lake 226 in the Experimental Lakes Area in northwestern Ontario is divided by a plastic curtain. The northeast basin, in the bottom of the photo, has a surface algae bloom clearly evident, a result of added phosphorus. (Fisheries and Oceans Canada) (Fisheries and Oceans Canada)

The book that had the greatest influence on him was Ecology of Invasions by Animals and Plants, by Charles Elton. Elton's book was published in 1958, four years ahead of Rachel's Carson's famous Silent Spring, which would later influence Schindler.

He still raves about Elton's book, surprised at how little it is known outside the science community. "It is probably the only book or paper that is still increasing in citations, 50 years after it was written," Schindler told CBC News.

After that summer, Schindler abandoned his plans to become an engineering physicist and enrolled in zoology at North Dakota State University in Fargo.

From there he went on to study at Oxford University, as a Rhodes Scholar. He soon joined Elton's group at Oxford, with his own focus on lakes.

David Schindler: Marriage, family, sports

When Schindler was an Oxford student, he returned to Minnesota to carry out research on lakes.  That's when he met his first wife, Kathe. They married and had three children, "all gumboot biologists" in Schindler's words.

Daughter Eva works as a B.C. government biologist in the Kootenay and Arrow Lakes area. Daniel is a fisheries professor at the University of Washington. Rachel once worked for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game.

Around 1977, Schindler and Kathe divorced. At a scientific conference in Virginia in 1979, he got to know another biologist, Suzanne Bayley, when they were "both at loose ends." Schindler invited her to join him and his three children on a backpacking expedition and they have been together ever since.

Bayley is now a professor emeritus at the University of Alberta in biology.

Schindler says it has been important to his science to be with another aquatic biologist. They collaborate infrequently on research but do serve as sounding boards and first reviewers for each other.

When a CBC-TV crew visited them in 2002, Bayley and Schindler were also raising sled dogs on their farm near Wildwood, Alta., west of Edmonton. Now only five are left, "one very geriatric and the rest getting there," Schindler said.

It's revealing that in his youth Schindler's favourite sport was wrestling, an individual sport, which he preferred over playing football. He told CBC News he was "jaded by football, where team performance was always pulled down by about half the people who weren't doing what they should."

After earning his PhD at Oxford, Schindler joined the Trent University faculty in Peterborough, Ont., in 1966. Two years later, he started his dream job.

Experimental Lakes project

The Canadian government had recently designated 46 remote northern Ontario lakes for research. In 1968, Schindler was hired to be the founding director of the Experimental Lakes Area project.

The plan was to do something not done before: large-scale, whole-lake experiments. And the first project was to learn the source of huge algae blooms that had begun plaguing Lake Erie and Lake Ontario. Theories abounded as to the cause.

For the experiment, Schindler and his team divided hourglass-shaped Lake 226 with a plastic curtain. Adding various elements to the two halves, they determined that phosphorus, primarily from detergents and sewage treatment, was responsible for the blooms, which scientists call eutrophication.

The scientists presented their findings to governments in Canada and the U.S., including an aerial photograph of Lake 226 taken during the experiment that showed the half of the lake with added phosphorus was murky and green, the other half clear.

It was "the single most powerful image in the history of limnology," James Elser, an American biologist told Science magazine in 2008. Limnology is the study of inland waters.

Over the objections of the detergent industry, in 1973 the Canadian government banned high-phosphate laundry detergents and the use of phosphorus by sewage treatments plants in the Great Lakes basin. In a 2008 lecture in Edmonton, Schindler remembered it as "one of the biggest success stories in environmental science and policy."

Schindler told CBC News his first five years on the Experimental Lakes Area project was the best job of his career. "Senior scientists decided where the money was going, what the problems were and we had no constraints," he said.

That changed in 1973 when the government disbanded the Fisheries Research Board and made its employees part of Environment Canada. "Instead of answering to a panel of the country's most eminent scientists, we now reported to politicians and their deputies," Schindler explained in the 2008 speech.

Shifting focus to acid rain

Some scientists left the project, but Schindler stayed on. There was a new problem he wanted to look into. It would become known as acid rain.

When he made his funding pitch to Environment Canada bureaucrats, Schindler says one of them accused him of inventing the acid rain problem to keep the Experimental Lakes Area project from being shut down.

The pitch was turned down.

David Schindler in the chemistry lab at the Experimental Lakes Area project in 1981. At the time, Schindler was the director of ELA. (Neville Ward/Fisheries and Oceans Canada)

That led to Schindler's first connection to the oilsands. The new Alberta Oil Sands Environmental Research Program funded research to learn about the first effects of acid rain on lakes, a potential problem for future oilsands development.

In the U.S., the National Research Council asked Schindler to lead an expert panel that would look into acid rain.

In a 1981 report, the panel found that evidence of the role of emissions from fossil fuel power plants was "overwhelming."

Contradicting the policy of the new Ronald Reagan administration, the panel called for the "prompt tightening of restrictions on atmospheric emissions of fossil fuels."

This time it was not federal regulations that brought in change, but "industry just saw the handwriting on the wall and did the right thing," cutting their emissions, Schindler told CBC News.

1989: Schindler Alberta bound

By 1989, Schindler had had enough of the increasing red tape, the declining funding and the "continued pressure to obey muzzling orders" as a government scientist. But that was not the clincher for him to move on.

Schindler and his wife Suzanne Bayley [see sidebar] had agreed that once Schindler's three children had grown up and left home they would look for work together. For 10 years, Bayley had been working on contract.

The University of Alberta offered both scientists positions and Schindler became the Killam Memorial Professor of Ecology.

The Athabasca River, a pulp mill and dioxin

In 1989, Schindler was named to the Alberta Pacific Review Panel to study a proposal for a pulp mill on the Athabasca River. The panel unanimously recommended against the mill because, Schindler told CBC News, the "mill would be adding dioxins to Athabasca River equivalent to those in the Fraser [River] that were then sterilizing heron colonies."

That led to some "terrible exchanges" with Alberta's environment minister, Ralph Klein, the future premier, Schindler recalls. It wouldn't be the last time Schindler would face such a response from the Alberta government.

A view of the Athabasca River at Old Fort Point, looking downriver toward Pyramid Mountain. The area, a wildlife corridor, is a great place to see many different types of animals. (Stephen A. Nelson/Canadian Press)

The pulp mill company responded by saying it now had an untested process that could eliminate dioxin entirely. The government appointed another panel that approved the process, and the Alberta-Pacific mill went ahead.

"It worked out in the end," Schindler said. The government then ordered other pulp mills that did produce dioxin to adopt new methods.

Schindler observed that 20 years later, consumption warnings prompted by those mills on the Peace and Athabasca rivers are starting to be lifted.

Agriculture, other human activity, climate change

At the University of Alberta, Schindler continued his water research. He warned about the environmental impact of agriculture, which has been rapidly expanding to meet the needs of a larger and wealthier global population.

For his inaugural article as a member of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences, elected in 2002, he wrote about how "the combination of climate warming, increases in human populations and industry, and historic drought is likely to cause an unprecedented water crisis" in the Prairie provinces.

Brooktrout Lake, a crystalline lake once held up as an example of a dead lake devastated by acid rain, has now become a symbol of nature's ability to heal itself once pollutants are curbed. The lake once teemed with trout before air pollution began to change the chemistry of lakes and soils in the six-million-acre Adirondack Park. This aerial photo was taken May 24, 2006. (Jim McKnight/Associated Press)

For Schindler, the most important issue is "the rate at which the boreal forest is being savaged." Canada's boreal region, an enormous swath that stretches across the country south of the tundra, is a huge carbon storehouse.

Schindler argues that "there are also signs, via climate warming, we could be releasing some of those huge carbon stores into the atmosphere, which would be a very powerful feedback on climate change that would make all of the estimates that we have from the IPCC [Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change] and so forth appear to be puny by comparison."

When it comes to debate about carbon trading, Schindler argues that the value of the boreal carbon store is worth many times what we get from boreal industries. (And about two-thirds of Canada's water is in the boreal region.)

Climate change complacency

People are still very complacent about climate change, in Schindler's view. "My guess is we are going to wait until we have some major catastrophe, then we are going to move," he told CBC News.

Schindler was a reviewer on the first IPCC report but has not been involved since then. He says the science that has come in since the 2007 report indicates that human activity is having a much greater impact on climate change than the last report indicated.

Schindler is already predicting that the next IPCC report "is going to be a real barn-burner. It is going to make the last one look pretty mild by comparison." That report won't be released until 2014.

The Athabasca and oilsands

Over the last few years, Schindler has added another focus to his work: the oilsands. The first peer-reviewed paper from Schindler and his team was published in 2009 and looked at the environmental impact of the oilsands on the Athabasca River watershed.

That study is based on data collected in 2008 about a group of pollutants known as polycyclic aromatic compounds (PAC). It concluded that "the oilsands industry is a far greater source of … contamination than previously realized."

The scientists were also critical of the joint government-industry Regional Aquatic Monitoring Program for the area. They wrote that their study "confirms the serious defects of the RAMP" and that it "missed major sources of PAC to the Athabasca watershed."

"The current RAMP program is like they threw the rulebook away," Schindler told CBC News. "They violate every rule of how to run a good long-term monitoring program, so of course they can't detect anything."

The Athabasca and oilsands, Round 2

Workers walk past the site of an upgrade at the Shell Albian Sands oilsands mining facility near Fort McMurray, Alta., in July 2008. (Jeff McIntosh/Canadian Press)

Publication of that paper attracted some attention but nothing like the response to their latest article, published in September.

The legal and political implications of the research are significant, so both the federal and Alberta governments have appointed panels.

At the federal level, there is also an intergovernmental issue since the Athabasca watershed extends north of the Alberta boundary.

"Oilsands companies should be charged under the Fisheries Act," Schindler told a House of Commons Committee in March. "Clearly they're discharging deleterious substances into fish-bearing waters," he added.

Schindler's list of awards

David Schindler has said he has received over 100 awards,and as many reprimands, for his work. The awards list includes:

  • 2010 Edward T. LaRoe Memorial Award, Society for Conservation Biology
  • 2009 Sandford Fleming Award (recognizes "a scientist who is able to bridge the gap between the lab and the people")
  • 2008 Alberta Order of Excellence,  the highest honour bestowed by the province
  • 2008 David Schindler Endowed Professorship in Aquatic Sciences established at Trent University
  • 2004 Officer of the Order of Canada
  • 2002 Elected Member, National Academy of Sciences (U.S.)
  • 2001 Gerhard Herzberg Canada Gold Medal for Science and Engineering, NSERC (Canada)
  • 2001 Fellow of the Royal Society
  • 1991 First Stockholm Water Prize, Stockholm Water Foundation
  • 1989 Naumann-Thieneman Medal, International Limnology Society

"Our airborne-emission stuff alone is proof of that and I don't think any reasonable scientist is going to deny that," Schindler said in an interview with CBC News. If it were, it would be a miracle, it would be the first time airborne plants that burn coke have been shown to discharge nothing."

The Alberta government continued to insist the contamination is from natural bitumen. "If we had never set foot in the region, those kinds of results would still be there," Alberta Environment Minister Rob Renner said in response to the Schindler study.

Schindler told CBC News their study was designed to distinguish the natural from the industrial and that pollution was worse in industrially disturbed locations.

Schindler's public advocacy

Although Schindler is recognized as one of Canada's top scientists, one thing that sets him apart is his public policy advocacy. He believes it's part of a scientist's responsibility.

As he puts it, in his characteristic style, "The one thing I don't like about university is it is full of little people who run around and do research and put it in journals that are squirrelled away in obscure corners of ivory tower libraries, whether they are relevant to policy or not."

Schindler "wants to get beyond that and that is what he is trying to do," Lorne Taylor said in a recent interview with CBC News. Taylor dealt with Schindler when Taylor was Alberta's environment minister, appointed in 2001.

Taylor won't challenge him on the science, but on the policy front he said Schindler "doesn't express his public policy opinions in a way that can actually influence public policy decision-makers."

Taylor concedes that Schindler is better at it than most scientists but thinks they should just do the science and not recommend public policy, "because in most cases they don't do a good job at translating knowledge into public policy that people can actually understand."

A white fish with a stunted tail, caught in Lake Athabasca near Fort Chipewyan, was displayed at a press conference in Edmonton, Sept. 16. (Jason Franson/Canadian Press)

Taylor notes that when he was in government and there were disagreements with Schindler, they did not become a personal fight. When interviewed by CBC News for this story, Schindler said federal Environment Minister Jim Prentice "seemed genuine" and that even the provincial politicians are sincere.

"It's just that they're getting this weird advice from the scientists in their employ," he added.

Schindler told CBC News he would prefer to "just do science." For him, that is what's fun.

"It isn't in hassling with politicians and that, which is to me rather like playing chess with a gorilla. The game is boring and you know you are going to win, but you have got to be prepared to duck once in a while when they get angry and take a swing at you."