Two studies say oilsands’ impact on northern water may be limited. First Nations disagree.

The Smith’s Landing and Mikisew Cree First Nations have criticized recent studies challenging the view that southern development has negatively impacted the Peace Athabasca Delta.

Two studies of the Athabasca River were initiated following concerns the river was becoming polluted by contaminants from Alberta’s oilsands industry to the south.

Researchers subsequently concluded upstream hydro dams and oilsands were neither contaminating nor drying out the river.


In response, Smith’s Landing First Nation lands coordinator Becky Kostka told Cabin Radio: “We find it insulting that a researcher from down south can come into our backyard and try to discredit generations of traditional knowledge with one western science study conducted without our input or involvement.”

Kostka said Smith’s Landing supported an earlier assertion by the Mikisew Cree that the studies’ researchers “overstate their position, stretching the applicability of their limited dataset.” 

The studies looked at a 67-km section of the Athabasca River in which it flows through the delta and into Lake Athabasca, about 200 km north of major oilsands activity.

The Peace Athabasca Delta is located partially in the southeastern part of Wood Buffalo National Park, where the Peace and Athabasca Rivers connect to the Slave River and Lake Athabasca.

For the studies, the research team took sediment core samples from eight lakes that have received flood waters from the Athabasca River over approximately the last 115 years. The Athabasca River drops sediment into the lakes during floods – as the sediment builds up over time, the lakes capture snapshots of what was in the river over many years.


“These sediment cores allow you to go back in time and measure what the Athabasca River was carrying, what contaminant concentrations were back before the industry,” said Dr Roland Hall, who supervised lead author and PhD student Mitchell Kay.

“This has been identified by most stakeholders as a critical knowledge gap,” Hall continued, “because nobody started measuring contaminants in the Athabasca River until 30 years after the industry started.”

Hall says the sediment cores showed metal concentrations had not become enriched following industrial activity.

The two First Nations argue the studies reviewed a limited number of chemicals emitted by oilsands projects and sampled a small study area.


Responding, Hall said researchers had “used sensitive methods … capable of addressing questions appropriately” that were recommended by a federal scientific advisory panel. He added he has studied the delta and the Peace River for more than two decades, and these studies were developed to understand impacts on the Athabasca River.

Kay, the lead author on both papers, said the study was designed only to evaluate eight metals previously identified as oilsands pollutants. If areas of concern had emerged, he said, that may have prompted researchers to look at other pollutants.

“These are ones that have been identified as indicators of industrial pollution. If the oilsands are polluting, these are the elements that one should be able to detect most readily,” said Hall.

Other contaminants – such as arsenic, mercury, and many carcinogenic chemicals the Mikisew Cree identified as missing from the study – would require a different evaluation method, the researchers said.

What’s causing change in the delta?

In their second paper, the researchers concluded hydrological changes in the same area began in the early 1980s when the Embarras River’s banks broke – and not in 1968, as many suspected, with the opening of the Bennett Dam on the Peace River.

The 1982 breaching of the Embarras River’s banks, known as the Embarras Breakthrough, is considered by Hall to mark “one of the most profound changes in hydrology in the Athabasca Delta in the last 100 years or so.” He said the magnitude and extent of the event had not been characterized before.

Local First Nations say this interpretation contradicts the traditional knowledge of the area, which holds that the delta is deteriorating because of development.

In 2014, the Mikisew Cree submitted a petition to the United Nations asking for Wood Buffalo National Park to be considered a “world heritage site in danger” due to the negative impacts of oilsands and dams.

Kostka, the Smith’s Landing lands coordinator, called the new study “a prime example of ethnocentrism within academia and western science; our knowledge holders know there is something wrong out there, they live it every day.”

She continued: “We have various sources continuing to tell us that there is no problem, yet rates of stomach cancer across the Mackenzie River basin are extremely high.

“We still have people in Fort Chipewyan dying of rare cancer, and residents of Fort Fitzgerald and Fort Smith have experienced foul smells which [the Alberta energy regulator] has confirmed as coming from the oilsands. I question how one colonial study can prove that we are not being impacted by development.”

Hall said researchers had “listened to traditional knowledge holders express their concerns, and the research centred on addressing concerns that we could address.”

The same researchers are now looking at flood-prone lakes beside the Athabasca River but nearer the immediate oilsands region, to see if they can identify pollution closer to industry as opposed to 200 km north.

They expressed a hope their research will help guide the development of a long-term monitoring program for water quality, water availability, and water quantity across the delta.