Misrepresented tar sands
The recent publication of two studies on the effects of tar sands contaminants in the Peace-Athabasca Delta in Alberta, led by University of Waterloo Prof. Dr. Roland Hall, has received a great deal of media attention within the past couple of weeks.
Stop the Tar Sands KW, a student group based at the University of Waterloo, would like to take this opportunity to question the manner in which the publications have been framed not only by the media, but also by the university.
The reported findings have been politicized and sensationalized by several major media outlets.
The Globe and Mail article that describes Hall’s research provocatively states in its headline: “Study finds little environmental impact from oil sands.” The article focuses on some aspects of Hall’s findings, such as lower than expected pollutants like polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons downstream of tar sands development, but avoids emphasizing his paper’s call for increased study of Northern Alberta and the entire Athabasca watershed.
In similar fashion, the University of Waterloo released a statement reporting that the studies found that, “the Alberta oil sands are not a major source of long-distance air and water pollution.”
The dean of science, Dr. Terry McMahon, remarked, “This evidence is essential in guiding responsible development of the oil sands while recognizing its true impact and benefits.”
The argument that the tar sands can be “responsibly” developed is highly contentious, as well as the idea that this study provides data on the “true” impacts of the tar sands.
Dr. Hall’s methodology has been scrutinized, and several prominent experts have argued against its conclusions. But even if Dr. Hall’s studies do report sound evidence on a lack of polycyclic aromatic compounds and other toxicants in the Peace-Athabasca Delta, many other factors at play have not been reported on.
Media coverage by news outlets and the university has refrained from mentioning the incomplete knowledge of tar sands pollution, poor monitoring of downstream areas, and the fact that long-distance air and water pollution from tar sands development may be occurring in many areas.
Studies such as these draw media attention away from the significant pollution that surrounds Fort McMurray, as well as the devastation that open pit mining has caused to the environment.
It is disheartening that the University of Waterloo, with such a prominent Faculty of Environment, frames this type of research as a testament to the “benefits” of the tar sands.
We encourage students to think critically about the media coverage that interprets scientific research, but most importantly, to read the studies themselves in order to form their own conclusions.
Stop the Tar Sands KW
Waterloo Public Interest Research Group