Report by Ben Westerterp , OPIRG McMaster

The environment has been influenced by humans more so in the past few centuries than ever before. In an era where more soil is being moved through human processes rather than natural processes, environmental concerns must be prioritized to prevent catastrophe.

Ben Westerterp (L) and Dr. Smol (R) 

Dr. John Smol of Queen’s University visited Hamilton to discuss some of his fascinating contributions to the environmental community regarding the status of our fresh water lakes surrounding the oil sands development in Alberta. Dr. Smol explained how measuring pollution from the oil sands has been a controversial issue for scientists and the petroleum industry, partly because of the natural occurrence of bitumen rich deposits in much of the subsurface sediment. This makes assessing a change in the level of industry associated compounds difficult over time.

“The industry lacks baseline data” said Dr. Smol, “without baseline data we cannot determine the pre-disturbance conditions”. In the case of the oil sands, monitoring programs in the past had not been accurately recording data, resulting in a “missing window” for environmental scientists to work off of.

Dr. Smol presented his research on the concentrations of PAHs – an isolated hydrocarbon that can be “fingerprinted” directly to the oil sands development – in the subsurface sediments of lakes within 50km proximity from the epicentre of the largest section of oil sands development. His study reconstructed the past few hundreds of years of a lakes strata and found an exponential increase in the PAH levels since 1969 – the year after the first development began. PAH levels in some of what were once isolated lakes, have reached similar levels to those of Lake Ontario. Similar trends were occurring, to a lesser extent, at proximity of 90km.

After discussing his findings, Dr. Smol gave us a glimpse of how the political environment surrounding his analysis also presented challenges to his work. Utilizing the Access Act, a journalist was able to recover a government portrayal of Dr. Smol as having a “lack of neutrality”.

What Dr. Smol teaches us is that current environmental assessments and reports from the oil sands can be arbitrary, due to the lack of baseline data to go off of and what are sometimes relatively short windows of environmental monitoring. Sometimes, the media can be used to inaccurately represent environmental consequences and may miss out on particular studies, as well as scientists that may end up going unheard. We are left to question our commitments to the economy over well-intentioned and innovative scientists such as Dr. Smol.

OPIRG McMaster co-sponsored this event with Friends of Red Hill Valley and others