Dr. David Schindler's parting thoughts on a life of science: Yes, one person can change the world (at least in small ways) Part II

We will be featuring a three-part series on Dr. Schindler's life in science as he prepares for retirement. We will mark his iconic 50 years by sharing his story ? beginning with how he found his way into a career that has reshaped the role of science in a changing wold.

Dr. David W. Schindler - 4 November 2013

We will be featuring a three-part series on Dr. Schindler's life in science as he prepares for retirement. We will mark his iconic 50 years by sharing his story - beginning with how he found his way into a career that has reshaped the role of science in a changing wold.

This is part II of our three-part series. Read Part I here. Read Part III here.





By 1988, I was rather tired of DFO's muddle headed management of ELA. Also, Suzanne had left a lab directorship at Louisiana State University to join me 8 years earlier. While she had some excellent research underway, she never did have a salaried position. With the family grown up, we decided to look elsewhere. Suzanne had several colleagues at the University of Alberta, who were anxious for her to join them. I was invited to apply for a Killam Memorial Chair, which had been vacated the previous year. We were both invited to join the U of A, and in 1989 we moved to Alberta.

I was told that I should not think about teaching the first term, but should design a strong research program, get some graduate students started, and put together a research lab. But just before we moved, I was invited to be a federal member of a federal-provincial expert panel to examine the benefits and impacts of a proposed new pulp mill near Athabasca, to be built by Alberta-Pacific (ALPAC). I accepted, believing that it would be an excellent chance to see northern Alberta and its problems.

This was to be Alberta's first federal- provincial panel. Before that, decisions had been made behind closed doors, by politicians and their friends in industry. After tremendous public resistance to the mill (led in part by Bill Fuller, past chair of the Zoology Dept., who had retired to Athabasca), then Minister of Environment Ralph Klein suggested the review panel as a way to appease the public.

I was horrified by the initial meeting of the panel. The overall plan seemed to be that we would travel to communities, listen to people's concerns with a sympathetic ear, perhaps suggest a few minor changes to the mill to lessen its impact, and disband. It seemed that in Alberta, policy was not based on science, but policy was expected to determine science! Shades of Galileo! I was the only environmental scientist on the panel. Most other panel members had never heard of dioxins, which had just been found to be rendering heron colonies sterile in the lower Fraser River, the result of effluents from upstream pulp mills. I convinced the panel that they should hear from experts on dioxins. We first heard from engineers from Paprican, the pulp and paper research institute of Canada. They assured us that the amounts released would be so tiny they would not be a problem. But I learned from former colleagues at the Freshwater Institute that dioxins bioaccumulated in food chains, were persistent, and toxic at very low doses. Many of the more informed members of the Friends of the Athabasca knew this as the result of their readings, and the panel heard endless popular renditions of the horrors of dioxins. Politicians were not aware of the problem. I persuaded the panel to hear from Drs. Derek Muir and Lyle Lockhart, both former colleagues and senior scientists at DFO who had done research on the dioxin problem. My own calculations indicated that while the dioxin releases would indeed be low, the concentrations of dioxins in the Athabasca River would still be similar to those found in the Fraser, because the Athabasca was a smaller river.

Largely as the result of Derek's and Lyle's testimony, our panel unanimously recommended against the mill, even though some of the members had friendships with prominent politicians or stood to benefit financially from the mill. It was heartening to see that there are still people whose ethics cannot be bent by money! We recommended that no mill be built until the Athabasca River was thoroughly studied, because we believed that the existing pulp mills had already damaged the river.

The politicians were taken aback by our report. They had already invested public funds heavily in the mill, building roads, railroads, and committing to loans, assuming that we would recommend what they wished. First, they contracted the international pulp and paper firm Jaakko Poyry to review our report, which politicians believed it to be flawed. But Jaakko Poyry's team said the panel's conclusions were right. Politicians quickly deduced who on the panel was responsible for infecting it with pesky science! Klein and I had several heated exchanges in the press. Meanwhile, Health Canada analyzed the fish in the Athabasca and Peace rivers, and found that existing pulp mills had already caused widespread contamination of fish with dioxins. To the embarrassment of provincial regulators, they issued a consumption advisory that covered several hundred kilometers of the rivers.

The government then began to call us the "environmental panel" and reasoned that they needed another review, by a technical panel. The new panel consisted of three civil servants, all engineers. Since our report, ALPAC had proposed a new, dioxin free pulping process. They had previously assured our panel that there was no such process that could produce bleached paper, which Jaako Poyry had confirmed. The proposed process had only been tested at tiny benchtop scales. The technical panel was asked simply "yes or no, can the proposed process work?" Their leashes were very tight. They answered yes, despite the scanty evidence. Relieved politicians declared that the mill could now proceed. As a sop to our panel, they announced that the river would be studied, but while the mill was being built. The result was the Northern River Basins Study, the first in-depth study of the Athabasca and Peace rivers. The NRBS was a world-class model in transparent, basin-wide governance that included stakeholders of all sectors, including indigenous people. Unfortunately, after five years the NRBS had gathered so much momentum that nervous politicians disbanded it, to take decisions back behind closed doors.

In 1991, in the midst of the pulp mill controversy, I received the first Stockholm Water Prize, designed by Sweden to be the water science equivalent of the Nobel Prize. In true Nobel tradition, the award is presented by King Carl Gustav V, followed by a celebration in Stockholm's ornate city hall, featuring dinner with a huge, gilt-lined dining room. In Sweden, scientists are treated by politicians and royalty as though they are movie stars, not like bums as they are in Alberta. Alberta officials were dismayed, as it severely compromised their attempts to dismiss me as a mouthy know-nothing, because of my criticism of their planning for the pulp mill. Normally such an international award results in congratulations from the Alberta legislature, but when this was proposed, the Tory-dominated provincial legislature voted not to. The press picked up on this "snub" with great glee, especially when my reply to whether I was hurt by the snub my reply was that I found it "pathetic, but amusing." For the next several years, the snub was mentioned every time I did something newsworthy, to the chagrin of politicians.

ALPAC's proposed technology worked, more by luck than by careful design and testing, in my opinion. Soon all pulp mills were required to use dioxin-free methods. Slowly, dioxins in fish declined, until a few years ago, consumption advisories for dioxins in fish were lifted in Alberta, except for burbot livers in a few areas. Some might say that this was a victory for our panel, but in fact, it could have been otherwise. The government chose to play Russian Roulette with the Athabasca River, but they were lucky.

Also during the ALPAC hearings, I learned first-hand how difficult it was for the public to get an accurate idea of the science of environmental problems. Most of the "experts" had industrial clients, and their presentations generally supported what industry proposed. In terms of credentials, many were expert soothsayers, not expert scientists. Public presentations opposing the mill were generally poor. When I asked several presenters why they had not gone to a university for assistance in understanding the problem, most believed that professors would not have time for them, or said they did not know where to begin in a large institution. I resolved that while I was at the U of Alberta, I would do my best to correct that problem, by advising people to whom they could turn to assist them in understanding potential problems with proposed industrial development. I continued to do this for my entire career here, although at times the demand for assistance has overwhelmed my capacity to offer advice. It is also the reason why I gave a lot of public presentations. For several years, I gave over 100 talks a year on a variety of water issues, charging no more than travel expenses from public groups. Particularly in need of assistance were indigenous communities. As a professional sled dog racer travelling in the North, I had always found native people to be friendly, generous hosts, with genuine concerns about the fate of their environment. Government claims that it "consults" them, but such consultations are typically brief visits where government and industry officials tell native people what they are planning, then leave without any genuine consideration of native concerns. In a country that claims to be "multicultural" it is tragic that we cannot understand the subsistence and spiritual needs of our own first citizens.

In the mid-1990s, concerns about contaminants in northern ecosystems began to emerge, largely as the result of work by old DFO colleague Derek Muir and his colleagues. Although there are few sources of pesticides, PCBs and related chemicals in the north, high concentrations were detected in fish and mammals from northern and arctic regions. One ecosystem of concern was the Canadian icon, Lake Laberge, of Robert Service fame. Lake trout and other predatory fish species had levels of contaminants high enough to be of concern for human consumption. Several First Nations in the area depend on the lake. Rumors were rampant that the US army had dumped mysterious barrels of chemicals into the lake during construction of the Alaska Highway in the early 1940s. Karen Kidd, a PhD student in my lab, chose to investigate the problem for her thesis. Hiring young local indigenous people to serve as guides and field assistants, Karen investigated Laberge and other lakes in the area, employing one of the first uses of stable isotopes of nitrogen to track contaminants through food webs. Her results, published in Science in 1995, showed that the contamination was not due to contaminant dumping, but was largely caused by the uniquely long food chain of Lake Laberge, which had one more step than most other food chains. Karen has gone on to establish a distinguished career on her own, as will be seen by her lecture in the Oct 31 symposium.

During the 1990s, Canadian scientists showed that the reason for high contaminants in the arctic was that they were volatilized in warm source regions and carried by air masses until they condensed in colder regions. They then entered food chains, where they were biomagnified in the fatty tissues of fish, birds and marine mammals. The rate of travel could be predicted by the volatility of each chemical. They moved much like water vapor moves in the atmosphere, condensing into cool lakes and other ecosystems when air masses are cooler, and re-volatilizing to be carried again when air masses and ecosystems warm. When Environment Canada's David Donald found that concentrations in fishes of alpine lakes of Alberta's national parks were also high, we hypothesized that there was a similar movement of contaminants into cold high elevation lakes. Martin Sharp and I obtained an NSERC Strategic Grant to trace the movement of contaminants into and out of snowpacks, glaciers and lakes of the Rockies. We hired Jules Blais as a post-doc to execute many of the studies, and graduate students Melissa La Freniere, Eric Braekevelt, and Linda Campbell used various parts of the study for their theses. Early on, we found that there was a great increase in deposition of contaminants with increasing elevation. We published this result in Nature, leading scientists in other parts of the world to conduct similar studies, showing that our hypothesis was correct. We found that glaciers had stored large burdens of DDT, toxaphene and other contaminants during the period of widespread use of these pesticides in the 1950s. We showed that these chemicals continued to enter the lakes for decades after the contaminants were banned, moving from contaminated fields via the atmosphere, as described above. Glacial melt caused by recent global warming was causing these older deposits to enter lakes now, even though they have not been used for decades. This study is in part a good news story. If widespread use of these persistent pesticides had continued to increase, we would now have many lakes and rivers with inedible fish. It shows that the swift rejection of such chemicals once their effects were known was justified. This decision, made on rather scanty evidence, has saved billions of dollars in resources and many species of fish-eating birds, including eagles and ospreys. It is an excellent example of how the precautionary principle should govern our environmental policy, rather than today's increasingly cavalier treatment of the environment to improve the economy. Of the above students and post-docs, three are now university professors, and one is a senior federal chemical technician.

In October of 1996, at the same time the above studies were underway, a malfunction at the Swan Hills Toxic Waste Treatment Center discharged an unknown amount of PCBs, dioxins and furans to the atmosphere. I arranged for Jules Blais, then a post-doc with me, and a young colleague to visit the area. With the assistance of a local trapper and his snow machine, they took large samples of snow at locations up to 30 km from the waste treatment center. The results showed widespread contamination of snow, for a distance of several kilometers on all sides. I was asked by Alberta Health to join a panel of experts to review the analyses of deer, moose and fish that they were collecting in the area. Despite objections from Alberta Environment, the committee recommended that consumption of fish and game should be limited for a 20 km radius around the treatment center. Alberta Health followed the committee's recommendations, and has done follow-up studies every few years since then. The consumption advisory remains in effect 17 years later. Women of child-bearing age and children are advised not to eat wild fish or game, and others are advised to eat very little. While some tissues have had concentrations of some of the contaminants decline over time, others have not changed. It is possible that fugitive emissions from the center are part of the problem, and our study should be repeated, preferably at a time when several months of accumulation in snow can be assessed. While Swan Hills has disappeared from the media's radar, it continues to be a sacrifice zone, to an unprofitable industry. It is a tragedy that the environment that supports the subsistence of aboriginal people in the area has been rendered unfit, for the foreseeable future.


In 1979-1981 I had chaired the US National Academy of Sciences Committee on the Atmosphere and the Biosphere. Our findings had left me concerned about huge increase in emissions of contaminants to the atmosphere and their fate and effects on ecosystems. One of my concerns in the late 1990s was the amount of mercury and polycyclic aromatic compounds being spewed into the air by the power plant complex at Wabamun Lake. I obtained funding from the Walter and Duncan Gordon Foundation to study the problem, and hired ex-PhD student Bill Donahue to take sediment cores from the lake, and others in the area. Dated sediment cores showed that every time there had been an expansion of coal-fired power in the area, mercury deposition had gone up. Lakes distant from the power plant showed no such increase. We were able to put the data together just in time for Bill to present the information to a hearing panel on a proposed new power expansion. As a result, for the first time, mercury emissions from the complex were restricted. We published the paper in the Journal of Paleolimnology.

Climate Warming Again

In 2004, the Alberta Government was putting out full-page advertisements denying that humans had a role in climate change. I constructed a letter to then Premier Ralph Klein pointing out that there was an overwhelming scientific consensus that humans were playing an important role via their emissions of greenhouse gases. I sent the letter to colleagues in natural science departments in other Alberta universities, who unanimously agreed with me. Seventy five of us signed the letter, and copied it to the press. Klein responded that he would arrange an audience with his then Minister of environment Lorne Taylor. Taylor's aide scheduled an afternoon meeting, to which I invited Martin Sharp to join me. Taylor spent most of the afternoon listening to us, and asking questions. He was particularly concerned about implications for Alberta's scarce water supplies. Shortly after, Taylor was able to get the Alberta Legislature to pass "Water for Life" legislation, and to set aside money for relevant research on water, via the Alberta Water Research Institute.

Bill Donahue helped to finance his attendance at law school by crunching numbers for me to examine the historical flow records of prairie rivers. All showed consistently declining summer flows, the result of warming climate and in some cases human withdrawals. Our paper describing the results, in PNAS in 2006, was described by Stockholm Water Prize medalist Steve Carpenter as the "view from the locomotive ten seconds before the wreck."

Lake Wabamun

One evening in early 2004 Minister Lorne Taylor phoned me and asked me whether I would be willing to chair a scientific committee to review the state of Lake Wabamun, where heavy human use and a large coal-fired power plant complex were causing endless problems for Alberta Environment staff. I agreed, chairing a panel of scientists from academia, consulting firms and the provincial ministry that summarized and analyzed the available science for the lake. We finished our report in late 2004. A few months later, the infamous CN train derailment occurred, spilling several railroad cars of Bunker C oil and wood preservative into the lake. By then, Taylor had been succeeded by Guy Boutilier as Minister of Environment. Guy phoned me the day of the spill and asked if I would be a member of an advisory team to help design a plan to contain the spill and recover the lake. I agreed to meet Guy at the town of Wabamun. The details of the spill left me aghast. The railroad crew had concentrated in getting the track repaired, ignoring the slick spreading onto the lake. In the early stages of the spill, a couple of people in a rowboat could have deployed a boom to contain it, preventing a very costly problem. But they had not, and the spill had spread into the main part of the lake where strong winds dispersed it widely. The available containment booms were also the wrong type, and there were not enough of them to do the job. To top off the problem, Alberta's once world class emergency response unit had been disbanded as a cost-cutting measure a few years earlier, with the idea that industry would look after its own emergencies. The cleanup went on for most of the summer. CN was fined 1.4 million dollars, and paid 7.5 million dollars more in compensation to Wabamun residents to avoid a class-action lawsuit. Although consultants' reports claim that the lake has recovered, lake whitefish populations remain lower than before the spill.

As a result of the spill, Minister Boutilier appointed an Environmental Protection Commission, headed by Eric Newell, to examine the response and recommend how to prevent such things in the future. I was a member of the commission, which recommended several measures, including the reinstatement of Alberta's emergency response team.

Read Part III here.