Each year the Air & Waste Management Association (AWMA), the oldest environmental science and technology organization in North America (if not the world), identifies a known and respected expert with knowledge in an area of interest and invites them to present a critical review on their area of expertise at the AWMA Annual Conference and Exhibition (ACE).
This year, Professor Jeffrey Brook (ChemE/DDLSPH) was invited to present a review on one of the most pressing economic and environmental issues in Canada, and one with global impacts: the Alberta Oil Sands. Dr. Brook possesses deep knowledge on the environmental effects of pollution released from oil sands activities, and his recent work in the area and the importance of the issue to Canada made it the perfect topic for this year’s prestigious ACE review.
Typically held in the US, Canada only receives the opportunity to host ACE roughly once every 10 years. This year’s conference took place from June 25-28th in Quebec City. ACE is one of the larger conferences of its kind and will be attended by scholars, environmental professionals (engineering, science, consulting, industry) and students. Given the great challenge our society faces in balancing environmental protection and economic growth, a conference such as ACE, with its multi-stakeholder participation, is critical to foster knowledge exchange and discussion, ultimately informing future decision-making.
Dr. Brook’s critical review, which took nearly a year to prepare, included extensive coverage of the state of knowledge in the topic area and with a critical eye, such as identifying limitations in knowledge to help focus future scientific work. In addition to being presented at ACE, the review will also appear in the Journal of the Air & Waste Management Association (The Journal). These papers are often some of the most highly cited in the AWMA Journal, one of the oldest, continuously published peer-reviewed technical environmental journals in the world.
“My review of monitoring is the first attempt, since the enhanced monitoring in the oil sands was initiated (JOSM – see below), to consider and integrate scientific progress across the main disciplines engaged in the monitoring. This is atmosphere, water and (wildlife) ecosystems. Since the main objective for oil sands monitoring is to track long-term ecosystem effects due to oil sands development and be able to recognize and avoid potential adverse environmental effects before they become a problem, an integrated approach is required. My review begins to lay the foundation for ongoing integrated assessment of the current monitoring knowledge, which is necessary to insure monitoring effectiveness continually improves and, when scientifically-supported, that controls (e.g., policies) be improved to avoid future environmental damage.”
Ten years ago, with oil sands development booming, concern was raised by scientific experts (e.g., the Royal Society of Canada, Dr. David Schindler a renowned environmental scientist) that short and long term impacts were not being adequately recognized and, where significant, mitigated. This was partly due to limitations in the current monitoring system in the air, water, land and biota. In response, the governments of Alberta and Canada initiated a major new program in 2012, the Joint Oil Sands Monitoring (JOSM) program, with ~$50M annually from the oil sands industry. The monitoring results Dr. Brook will discuss focus on the contribution from the federal government programs led by Environment and Climate Change Canada.
“Taking stock of the main lessons learned from the past 5+ years of oil sands monitoring, which my review has attempted to do, is an essential step in sustaining an effective environmental management program as it helps identify potential concerns needing more careful study and possible policy development. Furthermore, this provides an opportunity to clarify key limitations and gaps in the current monitoring and/or knowledge thereby helping the program adapt (i.e., adaptive management) and improve leading to more effective environmental protection.” However, a more complete understanding of the oil sands could be on the horizon. Tools to predict the current and future impacts of atmospheric emissions on the local and more-distant environment have made a significant leap forward.
What notable findings has Dr. Brook’s review help to shed light on? “Emissions of contaminants to the air are not well-quantified and the monitoring research has and continues to reveal that most emissions amounts are under-estimated,” says Brook. “This really highlights what I think is a critical need to improve information and for rigorous evaluation of the emissions reported. Organic toxics, known as polycyclic aromatic compounds (PACs), are a current environmental concern. They are in air, water and the biota and there is evidence that some of the negative changes in the health of some of the species studied are associated with PACs.”
According to Dr. Brook, the consequences of unchecked emissions are wide reaching. “A variety of animal species are exposed to contaminants of concern and some biological responses can be observed but due to the presence of other stressors and potential exposure sources the contribution from oil sands activity has not be adequately quantified and it is not known what level of response given the sensitivity of new modern measurement techniques represents an unacceptable ecosystem risk.”
“There are also several Indigenous populations potentially impacted from changes in their way of life to health effects of exposure to contaminants. These risks are presently not well-understood, which limits the ability to set short and long-term environmental standards that appropriately recognize their interests and understanding of ecological effects.”
Taking stock of the main lessons learned from the past 5+ years of oil sands monitoring is an essential step in sustaining an effective environmental management program as it helps identify potential concerns needing more careful study and possible policy development. Furthermore, this provides an opportunity to clarify key limitations and gaps in the current monitoring and/or knowledge thereby helping the program adapt and improve leading to more effective environmental protection.
The environment in the region faces multiple challenges that have combined effects. This includes industrial development, population growth, climate change and wildfires. Ongoing enhanced monitoring and integrated assessment of the knowledge is necessary to understand effects and protect important Canadian environments such as the world heritage Peace-Athabasca Delta, which hosts tremendous biodiversity.
Read more about Professor Brook’s research at U of T News.