Joint Canada-Alberta Implementation Plan for Oil Sands Monitoring: chapter 3


Implementation of the Plan Component Areas

The oil sands operations could have environmental impacts of two distinct natures - release of substances that are potentially harmful to the environment (referred to as contaminants) and direct disruption of the landscape. Both of these impacts need to be considered in an integrated fashion as their effects can be cumulative. 

Contaminants emitted from oil sands development and operations can impact the environment both close to and distant from the point of emission. Contaminants emitted from oil sands activities, such as industrial stacks, open mine faces, tailings ponds, exhaust from large trucks and the burning of brush to clear land, may move away from the source through the movement of air masses or water currents. These contaminants undergo chemical reactions in the environment as they are transported away from the sources. Finally they are deposited through rain, snow or dry deposition to water and land surfaces, potentially impacting ecosystems as well as people in populated areas. 

Both mineable oil sands and in-situ developments could affect fish and wildlife through habitat loss, or landscape fragmentation. Beyond clearing of habitat, there is disturbance to habitat through factors such as altered water regimes arising from disturbance to hydrological systems.

A key aspect of this monitoring program is its holistic nature, where the results are interpreted and linked across environmental media to relate emissions and habitat disturbance to cumulative, long-term and acute effects on receptors, both ecosystems and human health. The Implementation Plan will be delivered based on the principle of inclusion of Traditional Ecological Knowledge, and the training and involvement of members of local communities in the actual monitoring activities.

The Implementation Plan addresses the following components:

  • Air quality
  • Acid sensitive lakes and accumulated aerial deposition
  • Water quantity/quality
  • Aquatic ecosystem health - Fish status and health, benthic invertebrates and other aquatic biota
  • Wildlife toxicology
  • Terrestrial biodiversity and habitat disturbance
  • Data management

Figures 1a and 1b illustrate the existing monitoring in the oil sands area in 2010-2011, as well as proposed monitoring in year 2015. The figures illustrate the integrated nature of the planned monitoring, where monitoring across multiple media at near proximity will inform how the impacts on air, water, land and biodiversity are inter-related and will allow for the assessment of potential cumulative ecosystem effects outside of the immediate oil sands area. 

Brief descriptions of each of the components and some general examples of the types of activities that will be undertaken are outlined in the following sections. Details of how the Implementation Plan would roll out over three years are provided in the Appendix 1 and the Appendix 2

Figure 1a. Existing monitoring during the 2010-11 baseline year (Long Description) (High Resolution).

This figure provides a map of the oil sands development region (Lower Athabasca mainstem and tributaries) and downstream receiving environments, showing water, air and biodiversity monitoring activities prior to the start of implementing the integrated oil sands environment monitoring plan. The implementation of the integrated plan is being phased in over three years (2012-2015).

Existing monitoring during the 2010-11 baseline year

Figure 1b. Proposed monitoring by 2015 (Long Description) (High Resolution).

This figure is a schematic representation of the 2011-12 key sampling locations in the Athabasca oil sands development region (Lower Athabasca mainstem and tributaries) and its downstream receiving environments, before implementation (over the 2012-15 time-frame) of the oil sands integrated monitoring plan. Compared to 2010-11 the monitoring network was enhanced by identifying five additional mainstem and three additional tributary sites as key sampling locations.

Figure 1b. Proposed monitoring by 2015

Air Quality

There are many sources of air contaminant emissions from oil sands developments, including industrial smokestacks, tailings ponds, transportation, and dust from mining operations. In general, these emissions are projected to increase into the future with increasing industrial development. Current air monitoring efforts in the region have been undertaken primarily for compliance purposes, in support of provincial regulations. Significant questions remain regarding the emissions from point and non-point sources, the chemical transformation of these emissions in the atmosphere, their long-range transport and their effects on the ecosystem and human health.

The monitoring of air quality will address the fate of contaminants from the point of emission to the point of deposition into aquatic and terrestrial ecosystems. Air quality monitoring includes enhanced effort to determine emission from industrial stacks, mobile sources and area sources (e.g. tailings ponds). The use of satellite images, remote sensing and air quality models to integrate the data is incorporated into the overall monitoring activities to build a comprehensive inventory of emissions as well as to assess current status of contaminants in the area (e.g. concentrations, trends, transport pathways), especially in areas where there is limited in-situ monitoring. Ground-level ambient monitoring consists of a phase-in of additional monitoring sites that supplement existing monitoring.

When implemented, the new sites will span a large spatial range, from upwind sites to long-range transboundary sites; this broad spatial range will allow a greater understanding of the distinction between natural, point and non-point sources and the long-range effects of air emissions downwind, such as on acid sensitive lakes and terrestrial vegetation. The new stations will be phased in as short-term monitoring studies are conducted to assess and guide the implementation of the new monitoring sites in locations best suited to address outstanding knowledge gaps.

The implementation of a network of air and precipitation concentration monitoring sites providing data from which wet and dry deposition over large spatial scales will be determined through application of air quality modeling is a focal point of integration across air and water quality and has direct links to effects on aquatic biota.

Acid Sensitive Lakes and Accumulated Aerial Deposition

Air contaminants released by industrial activities into the atmosphere can be carried over a relatively wide area and deposited on to the landscape and into lakes and rivers through rain, snow and dry deposition. The monitoring of the snowpack and acid sensitive lakes is designed to assess the linkages between atmospheric deposition and impacts on water quality. Rivers and lakes downwind of the oil sands region may be susceptible to contaminants arising from oil sands development, including degradation by nitrogen and sulphur contaminants in acid sensitive systems.

Aerial deposition of emissions, including to the Lower Athabasca River and to downwind acid sensitive lakes, is a key area in which integration of air and water quality and water quantity sampling at appropriate spatial and temporal scales will occur. Lake waters and accumulated snowpack will be sampled. Data will be analyzed to determine, where possible, baseline conditions to which changes in atmospheric deposition as well as chemical and biological changes can be detected and explained.

Water Quantity/Quality

The quality and quantity of the water in the Athabasca River and throughout the oil sands region has been a key concern due to the range of contaminants produced by industrial activities that could end up in lakes and rivers in the region. While there are currently efforts undertaken by government, academic and industry groups to acquire some water monitoring data, the sampling approach is poorly designed for the purposes of providing an integrated understanding of the impacts of the oil sands industry on the aquatic environment. Water monitoring will be done through a comprehensive and integrated approach as described in the Integrated Monitoring Plan for the Oil Sands, released in July, 2011, that quantifies and assesses the sources, transport, loadings, fate, and types of oil sands contaminants in the Athabasca River system and effects on key aquatic ecosystem components (both within the oil sands development area and in downstream receiving environments) that are measures of ecosystem health and integrity (fish, invertebrates).

A mass-balance approach was used to define the network of sites to be monitored for key water quality, hydrometric and aerial deposition variables. An expansion of the current water quality and quantity monitoring sites will be undertaken. This provides a more systematic and comprehensive quantification and modeling of the sources, transport, flux, and fate of materials and contaminants entering the watersheds. By necessity this also requires a more comprehensive network of hydrometric and suspended and bed sediment measurements, better quantification of historical background conditions, and improved estimates of atmospheric contributions. The expanded water quantity/quality program will increase the amount of site-specific, reach-specific and regional-scale information, and the spatial and temporal status and trends in contaminant loadings.

Relative to the current level of monitoring efforts conducted by the Governments of Alberta and Canada as well as others in 2011-12 (see Figure 2), the monitoring program will significantly increase its overall scope and coverage over a number of years (see Figure 3). In addition, supportive technical workshops will be necessary to address knowledge and analytical gaps that are core to the successful implementation of the plan.

Figure 2. Schematic representation of the key sampling locations on the Lower Athabasca mainstem, its tributaries, and downstream receiving environments in 2011-12 (Long Description) (High Resolution).

This figure is a schematic representation of the 2011-12 key sampling locations in the Athabasca oil sands development region (Lower Athabasca mainstem and tributaries) and its downstream receiving environments, before implementation (over the 2012-15 time-frame) of the oil sands integrated monitoring plan. Compared to 2010-11 the monitoring network was enhanced by identifying five additional mainstem and three additional tributary sites as key sampling locations.

 

Figure 2. Schematic representation of the key sampling locations on the Lower Athabasca mainstem, its tributaries, and downstream receiving environments in 2011-12

Figure 3. Schematic representation of the key sampling locations on the Lower Athabasca mainstem, its tributaries, and downstream receiving environments as anticipated by 2015, as described in the Integrated Monitoring Plan for the Oil Sands released by Environment Canada, July 2011 (Long Description) (High Resolution).

This figure provides a schematic representation of proposed sampling sites on the Athabasca mainstem and major tributaries under full implementation of the plan by 2015. Some sites are new, while others are existing sites that were selected for incorporation into the new monitoring network because of their strategic location and/or where there is some historical data. Major improvements over previous monitoring activities are that this new monitoring network allows for mass-balance calculations to be used for determining flux rates, and increases both the spatial and temporal sampling regime, which in turn, provides statistical power to answer scientific questions.

Figure 3. Schematic representation of the key sampling locations on the Lower Athabasca mainstem, its tributaries, and downstream receiving environments as anticipated by 2015, as described in the Integrated Monitoring Plan for the Oil Sands released by Environment Canada, July 2011

Aquatic Ecosystem Health - Fish Status and Health, Benthic Invertebrates and Other Aquatic Biota

Along with concerns about water quality in the Lower Athabasca and its tributaries, there are concerns about the health of the aquatic ecosystems. There is a risk that contaminants from industrial activities entering rivers and lakes could have an adverse effect on the overall healthy functioning of the aquatic ecosystems. Efforts will focus on monitoring a set of fish, invertebrates and other species that are indicators of overall aquatic ecosystem health.

This will be done through establishing

  • the current status of fish population health and benthic communities structure and function in the Lower Athabasca region;
  • the baseline against which future change can be assessed;
  • the differences among reference and potentially impacted sites;
  • the health status of fish populations in high use areas;
  • whether the incidence of fish abnormalities is elevated or changing;
  • and whether contaminant concentrations in fish are increasing or decreasing downstream of oil sands development.

Wildlife Toxicology

Wildlife may be exposed to oil sands-generated compounds primarily via the consumption of contaminated food and water. Elevated exposures may result in health impairments observable at the population level. The purpose of this program is to assess the health of sensitive wildlife species that may be exposed to oil sands-generated contaminants, and to make the results of these assessments available to decision makers.

The initial focus will be on the identification of a variety of wildlife indicators (including birds, mammals, amphibians and plants) to select species most suitable for monitoring contaminant exposure and impacts. The monitoring of a variety of wildlife classes occupying different positions along the food web will allow the extrapolation of data and trends observed in a select group of wildlife indicators to develop a broader understanding of the impacts of oil sands contaminants on terrestrial biodiversity and ecological integrity in the area. Data collected will include measurements of oil sands-related contaminants of concern in wildlife tissues at various locations (e.g. PAHs, mercury, arsenic, etc.). The data will also be assessed to identify wildlife populations that may be at risk of health impairment by comparing to published threshold levels for contaminant effects.

Terrestrial Biodiversity and Habitat Disturbance

A key consideration related to the development of the oil sands is that of habitat disturbance. Development of the oil sands alters landscapes and results in the degradation or loss of habitat. It also impacts conservation efforts.

Current monitoring activities are providing good information-however, geographic coverage will be expanded and the monitoring sensitivity will be increased, particularly for species at risk. The additional monitoring will provide an improved understanding of the status and trends of species occurring in the oil sands area and the cumulative and individual effects of land disturbance by oil sands on terrestrial biodiversity. 

Further, the monitoring is designed to identify cause-effect relationships between stressors and targets. The intent of the program is to make the necessary information available to decision makers to inform land-use planning, environmental assessment, conservation and recovery planning. It can also be used to assess the efficacy of mitigation efforts. The cumulative effects assessment will be a key component of managing biodiversity through Alberta's regional planning process.

The vast area, the diversity of habitat types and the great variety of species that inhabit and interact throughout the area represents significant challenges to implementing a comprehensive biodiversity monitoring program.

Data Management

In addition to increased monitoring efforts, both governments are working cooperatively to develop and implement an integrated data management system. A new Oil Sands Data Management Network (OS_DMN) will allow open and transparent public access on-line to credible, comprehensive oil sands environmental monitoring data and supporting information. Network partners will be responsible for management of data and will adhere to a framework outlining a core set of data management policies. This will ensure that data is managed consistently across all partners. A phased implementation will be required to address the full scope of the data to be managed.

 

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