Researchers Find 7,300-mile Ring of Mercury Around Tar Sands in Canada

This aerial photo shows a tar sands mine facility near Fort McMurray, in Alberta, Canada. Jeff McIntosh/The Canadian Press/AP

This aerial photo shows a tar sands mine facility near Fort McMurray, in Alberta, Canada. Jeff McIntosh/The Canadian Press/AP

by Peter Moskowitz / Al Jazeera

Scientists have found a nearly 7,500-square-mile ring of land and water contaminated by mercury surrounding the tar sands in Alberta, where energy companies are producing and shipping oil throughout Canada and the U.S.

Government scientists are preparing to publish a report that found levels of mercury are up to 16 times higher around the tar sand operations, principally due to the excavation and transportation of the bitumen in the sands by oil and gas companies, according to Postmedia-owned Canadian newspapers like the Vancouver Sun.

Environment Canada researcher Jane Kirk recently presented the findings at a toxicology conference in Nashville.

The revelations add to a growing concern over the environmental impacts of the tar sands. Many environmentalists charge that the exploitation of the sands for oil will lead to an increase in carbon emissions, the destruction and contamination of land and water and health problems for Canadians. The debate over the tar sands crossed over into the United States when energy company TransCanada proposed building the Keystone XL pipeline to transport the crude oil to the southeastern U.S. for refining and distribution.

Kirk and her colleagues’ research shows that the development of the tar sands may be responsible for spreading mercury —which can cause cancer in humans — far beyond the areas where drilling and transportation are taking place.

The research suggests that the tar sands development has created a “bullseye” of mercury contamination, with areas close to the sands showing much higher levels of mercury than prior to development.

The researchers collected samples of dirt, snow, birds eggs and other materials from more than 100 sites to perform their analysis.

While the levels of mercury found around the sands are still lower than in other parts of Canada (notably around coal plants and incinerators), mercury is particularly concerning to environmentalists because it can bioaccumulate — meaning it becomes increasingly concentrated as it works its way up the food chain.

Another Canadian researcher also found elevated levels of mercury in bird eggs downstream from the tar sands project in a report published in October.

Kirk and her team also found traces of methylmercury, a more toxic form of mercury in snow for the first time in the area.

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