Evidence Helps Save Environment — And Farming — From Disaster

From afar – and maybe even up close — it’s hard to know exactly what’s going on in environmental hot spots, such as Alberta’s oilsands, despite oil company ads that tell everything is coming up roses.

But agriculture needs to pay more attention to oilsands. Here’s why.

It’s hard to separate agriculture and the environment, given that agriculture happens in the environment. Back in the ‘80s, when the environmental movement started labelling modern farmers polluters, I heard farmers kick back by declaring themselves the original environmentalists. How long could we stay in business, they said, if we destroyed our own livelihood (and our family’s health) with poor environmental practices? Take that, environmental groups.

But it’s much easier to see a potential environmental woe when it’s in the field next door. It’s another matter when it’s out of sight from mainstream Canada.

That’s where environmental toxicology expert Dr. John Giesy comes in. The University of Saskatchewan professor, who is a global authority on monitoring for toxicity, spoke at the University of Guelph last week about the kind of scientific sleuthing required to prevent or at least minimize environmental damage in our increasingly industrialized and complicated world.

And the oilsands are in his sights.

As a bit of background, Giesy is this year’s winner of the Royal Society of Canada’s Miroslaw Romanowski Medal, for significant contributions to resolving scientific aspects of environmental problems, or for important improvements to the quality of an ecosystem. Part of the award involves speaking appearances.

The society made a fine choice. Giesy is a global name in toxicology, and one of its most cited authorities. It was he, his students and his lab that brought to light – and subsequently helped ban — harmful substances called perfluorinated chemicals that first started to be used in the 1980s in everything from microwave popcorn packaging to floor covering and fabric protection.

The key was the monitoring. Giesy and his team offered irrefutable evidence of the chemical’s presence. And fortunately, in Canada we still make laws and policies based on evidence, rather than hearsay.

That experience is behind him now, and he’s turned his focus towards the oilsands, and their potential effect downstream.

Again, it’s all about evidence, the kind the companies there said they couldn’t find, evidence of harmful chemicals in the mammoth tailing ponds that have accumulated there in 40 years of development. Giesy lab shed light on the matter — it turns out the companies had set their limits too high. Giesy and his group found toxic chemicals in trace amounts.

And although this all sounds rather nefarious, the truth is Giesy’s evidence could actually help the companies avoid huge problems. Remediation methods now exist to render some of the oilsands’ processing chemicals harmless to the environment. When that happens, the toxic tailing ponds can start to be drained, says Giesy.

Current Alberta law tries to protect the environment by not letting anything be released from those ponds. That’s good, but it’s forcing oilsands producers to just keep building more and higher tailing ponds.

Giesy says will lead to a catastrophe. If the dikes around one or more of these mammoth tailing ponds give way before the waste is detoxified, it is bound to find its way into the Athabasca River. Downstream, it will be mayhem. And Giesy says it’s a matter of when, not if, these dikes give out. The ponds are simply getting too big, being measured now in units of square miles.

Will anyone listen to Giesy? Agriculture should.

Local foodies will be distraught, to say the least, when the levee breaks and downstream produce looks like a horror movie.

On the other hand, our export market competitors will jump for joy, noting with glee to potential crop and livestock buyers abroad that Canada ignores its own scientific experts and is awash in toxic pollution.

Imagine the ramifications to trade, let alone people, should such a catastrophe come about. If detoxification is possible, what’s the hold up? Given the way we’re getting skinned alive at the gas pumps, the oil companies have buckets of money available for remediation. Maybe they should spend more on technology and less on telling us what wonder environmentalists they are.

 

Owen Roberts

Owen Roberts directs research communications and teaches at the University of Guelph, and is president of the International Federation of Agricultural Journalists. You can find him on Twitter as @theurbancowboy

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One Comment

Richard Barrett

As an Albertan whose pay cheque pays for food which comes from farmers, I appreciate the many ways that the Oil companies are changing to protect the environment. As a former Manitoban on the farm, I appreciate the education that the farmers are now given to reduce the runoff of fertilizer that was real bad when I was growing up. It was a contributing factor that caused Pelican Lake to have the fish die more than one winter. We all can do better. I was impressed with what I have learned from the http://www.savoryinstitute.org. Not one farmer that has made the change will go back to the ways which they use to do things.

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