Tracking pollutants in the oil sands

Abha Parajulee (left) and Frank Wania

Research by Abha Parajulee (left) and her supervisor Frank Wania suggests that certain emissions from Alberta oil sands may be worse than we thought.

The Athabasca oil sands generate almost as much debate as petroleum, as politicians, activists, academics and business leaders face off about economic benefit versus environmental impact, such as that caused by emissions. 

Now, new data from UTSC researchers suggest that, at least with certain pollutants, the emissions have been underestimated.

“When dealing with chemicals that have the potential to harm people and animals, it is vital that we have a good understanding of how, and how much, they are entering the environment,” says Abha Parajulee, a researcher in the Department of Physical and Environmental Sciences.

Parajulee, who is a PhD student in the lab of Professor Frank Wania, have found that the emissions of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), which are released in the petroleum extraction process, have been greatly underestimated.

Environmental impact assessments have so far only considered the PAHs that are released directly into the atmosphere, and have found the risks to be within acceptable limits.

But Parajulee and Wania’s model—the most comprehensive ever done for the region—also considers indirect pathways for the release of PAHs, such as evaporation from tailings ponds, and blowing dust. These pathways hadn’t been assessed before or were deemed negligible.

“Our study implies that PAH concentrations in air, water, and food, that are estimated as part of environmental impact assessments of oil sands mining operations are very likely too low,” says Wania. “The potential risks to humans and wildlife may also have been underestimated.”