Thursday, March 14, 2013

Canadian Government Tries to Pull the Plug on Important Research Program Affecting Oil Sands Pollution – and the United States

The Canadian government is planning to mothball a prestigious environmental research program that has benefitted not only Canada, but the United States.

At the end of this month, Canada plans to cut off funding for the so-called Experimental Lakes Areas, a unique outdoor laboratory consisting of 58 small lakes in northwestern Ontario where scientists conduct experiments on whole bodies of water. The projects began in 1968. The research done there was instrumental in determining the causes and effects of acid rain. That research, in turn, led to the Acid Rain Treaty between Canada and the U.S.

Perhaps not coincidentally, one of the program’s current research projects involves toxic pollutants released in the extraction and use of Canada’s oil sands – slated for transport in the controversial Keystone XL Pipeline, which Canada is aggressively promoting.

Canada’s decision to axe the research funding – it’s a paltry $2 million a year – is a strange and inexplicable twist to the relations between the United States and Canada. (The funding decision was made last year, but the axe falls in little more than two weeks.) It’s time for U.S. diplomats to speak up about this.

During his recent meeting with Canada’s foreign minister, Secretary of State John Kerry stressed the bi-lateral cooperation between the U.S. and Canada.

Canada’s foreign minister, in turn, noted his country’s unabashed support for the controversial Keystone XL pipeline, designed to complement and facilitate extraction of carbon-heavy oil sands. Simultaneously he asserted that reducing greenhouse gas emissions was a “real priority” for his country.

Actions, of course, speak louder than words.

And those of us living in the U.S. should be concerned that the impending shutdown of this research program could truncate a number of key experiments of benefit to the U.S. and make it impossible to proceed with other vital experiments.

To cite just a few examples:

• An ongoing mercury research project, which has already been used to underpin new policies to regulate mercury in the USA, and a recent international treaty to control mercury emissions.

• Ongoing research involving endrocrine disrupters (synthetic estrogen used in birth control pills) and their impact on fish.

• Research on nanosilver particles -- are already in widespread use in clothing, bandages, cosmetics, baby products, and washing detergents – and their potential to destroy beneficial bacteria in freshwater.

• Proposed research on polycyclic aromatic compounds – cancer-causing pollutants believed responsible for many of the long-term effects of the Exxon Valdez oil spill, suspected of causing fish deformities in the oil sands, and are found downstream of many Superfund sites. (An aside: the U.S. EPA is concerned about emissions of these pollutants from cars and would obviously benefit from better knowledge of the toxicity of individual compounds.)

Results would also be applicable to policies regulating oil sands mining and upgrading, shipping of pertrochemical projects, and combustion of fossil fuels. Small lakes at ELA would be ideal for such work. And perhaps this is the real reason the Canadian government wants to stick a fork in this whole business.

Regardless of the government’s motivation, this research program has been invaluable.

As a coalition trying to keep it alive puts it it

Addresses real-world problems and solutions with the goal of providing advice to policy-makers and industry on issues such as:

• Strategies for combating harmful algal blooms
• Regulation of air pollution to reduce acid rain
• Designing reservoirs to minimize greenhouse gases
• Effectiveness of proposed measures to lower mercury contamination in fish
• Environmental impacts of aquaculture and escaped genetically-modified fish
• Impacts of hormones present in sewage effluent on fish health
• Evidence that flame retardants degrade into banned toxic chemicals
• Toxicity of antimicrobial nanoparticles ─ commonly used in clothing ─ to aquatic life

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