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

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 Schindler - 5 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 II here.






The Oil Sands

The oil sands industry began to increase rapidly after 2000, in response to higher global oil prices making the high cost of extracting and upgrading bitumen profitable. Soon, concerns about air and water quality were increasingly voiced, especially by indigenous people in the area. The Energy and Utilities Board held several hearings on new mines, and despite widespread public concerns, all were approved. Hearings were a very unequal process, with companies represented by large teams of highly polished environmental consultants, whereas indigenous people and concerned citizens were represented largely by a few moonlighting university professors and small consulting firms. In 2007, I had lunch with the Minister and his staff, who assured me that their monitoring had revealed that nothing was getting into the river system from the expanding industry. These assurances were a red flag to me, because I had never seen large-scale clearing of watersheds that did not cause increased erosion of chemicals, nor burning of fossil fuels and smelting of ores that did not cause emissions of acids and toxins to the atmosphere. Also, much of the monitoring was done by consulting firms for industry under the RAMP program, and a federal review of RAMP two years earlier had been scathing in its criticism. After consultation with several colleagues and indigenous leaders, I decided that we would conduct our own investigation. We were able to obtain support for the work from Tides Canada and the Walter and Duncan Gordon Foundation. Jeff Short, then a chemist with the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), Peter Hodson, a toxicologist at Queen's University, and I had met during reviews of the Lake Wabamun disaster, to advise Alberta Environment on recovery of the lake. Many of the spilled chemicals were similar to those expected from oil sands mining and processing, which we calculated to be a larger potential problem. We hired Erin Kelly, who had done her PhD with me a few years earlier on mercury in mountain lakes, to execute the field program and look after the data base.

Erin mapped the bitumen-bearing McMurray formation on GPS maps, and overlaid a map of development. We used this map to choose sites to monitor. In addition to several sites on the mainstem Athabasca River, we also had a series of three stations on each of several tributaries. On each, one station was upstream of the McMurray Formation, one was within the formation but upstream of most land disturbance, and one was downstream of development. We had just enough money to do two surveys, one in winter and one in summer. On the winter survey, Erin also sampled the snowpack for pollutants at most of the locations. We hired Robert Grandjambe and Ray Ladouceur from Fort Chipewyan, who knew the area well, to expedite transporting Erin and two graduate student assistants around the area.

One problem with sampling polycyclic aromatic compounds (PACs) in water was that they were present as dozens, if not hundreds of compounds, all at tiny concentrations, but those concentrations could be toxic for some of the chemicals. Jeff Short and his colleagues had developed a method for concentrating PACs during their studies of the Exxon Valdez oil spill in Alaska. A plastic membrane with known properties was simply suspended in an armored metal case to protect it from being physically damaged. After it had been left for several weeks in the river, the membrane came to equilibrium with concentrations in the water, and the concentrations could be estimated, because the membranes had been calibrated. It was hundreds of times more sensitive than analyzing water samples directly. We were able to borrow the membranes and samplers from NOAA for the duration of our study. Our laboratory and the NOAA lab in Juneau, Alaska worked together to ensure that the mass spectrometer in our chemistry laboratory was producing results comparable to theirs.

As we had expected, we found widespread contamination in snow with a wide variety of organic and metallic compounds. The contamination was highest near the two upgraders, which were right across the river from each other, and easily detectable for up to 50 km away. This was not surprising, because petcoke, a notoriously dirty fuel produced from bitumen was burned to heat the bituminous sands to extract and upgrade the bitumen. Temperatures were high enough to volatilize mercury and many organic compounds. When the more volatile compounds reached the cold atmosphere, they condensed and fell into the snow and nearby vegetation. Recent snow analyses by Environment Canada have confirmed our findings. Results for river showed that as expected, contaminants increased as water ran through the McMurray Formation, but they increased still more downstream of watersheds that had been highly disturbed by mining or other industrial activity. In short, natural sources were adding contaminants as industry and politicians had claimed, but it was clear that industrial development was adding to the burdens carried by the rivers, particularly tributaries that had high industrial activity destroying their watersheds.

We wrote up our findings in two papers, publishing them several months apart in the Proceedings of the US National Academy of Sciences(PNAS). The first of these elicited little response from politicians, even though I had sent pre-publication copies to both provincial and federal ministers of environment. This was probably because it was published shortly before Christmas, 2009.

The second paper, in August 2010, elicited a considerable response from industry and government. Both provincial and federal environment ministers declared that our results could not be correct, because their monitoring programs showed the opposite. However, a few days later, I received a call from federal minister Jim Prentice's office. Would I be available to discuss our results with him later that week, when he was in Alberta? I agreed to meet the minister at Edmonton International Airport, where we were able to obtain a small meeting room. Erin joined me to brief the minister. It was soon obvious that he found our results convincing. We discussed possible responses. I suggested that in order to counter the industry's enormous propaganda campaign, it might be desirable to have our results reviewed by a panel of very prominent experts. I suggested that several members of the Royal Society of Canada had the necessary credentials in matters relating to petroleum geology, airborne contaminants, and biological implications. Within two days, Prentice had assembled such a panel, charging them with a simple question: was current monitoring of the Athabasca River adequate, or was it flawed, as our results suggested? He gave the panel two months to report their findings. When the panel reported that we were correct and monitoring was not adequate, Environment Canada quickly appointed a panel of experts to re-design a monitoring program for the river. This was done over the winter, and improved monitoring began in spring of 2011. John Smol was one member of that panel, who later studied lake sediments, showing that contamination with airborne contaminants was even farther reaching than we had estimated. He will talk of that work on Oct 31st.

The provincial minister chose to conduct his own review. Again, world-renowned experts were chosen as panelists, including several Americans expert at monitoring, air pollution, and monitoring designs. They were charged with a broader task, comparing our results to industry's and governments. Again, their conclusion was that the monitoring program needed improvement. Dr. Peter Dillon, who will be speaking on Oct 31, was one member of that panel.

The autumn of 2010 was the worst of my life. Almost daily, I had to deal with attacks from industry and government officials. During the same period, Suzanne was under treatment for cancer, and not reacting well to chemotherapy. I spent many nights in emergency rooms and hospitals, rushing home to feed the dogs, catch a few hours of sleep, and do it all again.

As a result of the monitoring panels' findings, the provincial minister appointed yet another panel, the Alberta Environmental Monitoring Panel (AEMP), charged with designing a "World Class" monitoring program. Curiously, this panel was not only scientists, but included several business leaders.

What had happened was not lost on the AEMP panelists. In their initial report, they proposed that governments appeared to be in conflict of interest by both promoting oil sands development and overseeing the monitoring. They proposed that to regain the trust of the public, monitoring should be overseen by a group independent of either level of government. The minister agreed to act on their recommendations and struck new panels to flesh out the details of how this might occur. Finally, I felt that all of our efforts had not been in vain. With the help of other scientists, we had cut through the crap and reveal the deficiencies that needed to be corrected. But as of October 2013 no final decision has been made on the makeup of the panel or to whom it will report. Another round of smoke and mirrors coming? Hopefully, we will soon know.

We did one other investigation during our study. Since the early 1990s, indigenous people had been complaining about increased malformations in fish. They had sent several samples to government officials, but all had been lost or arrived in poor condition. We decided to buy a small freezer and put it in the nursing station at Fort Chipewyan, where nursing staff could see that fish were properly archived, with forms filled out to indicate who had caught the fish, where and when, and other details. When a significant number of fish were obtained, a reliable local person who was coming to Edmonton would deliver them directly to our lab. Over the course of one winter, we obtained approximately 30 fish, with a variety of malformations, including tumors, spinal deformities, eye and lip malformations, hematomas and a variety of other ailments. Following the denials of industry and government about our results, we decided that it was time to make these public. We invited both scientists and native people to describe what they had observed at a press conference. The event was well attended by media and interested public. We pointed out that the frequency and variety of malformations were not unlike those seen in contaminated rivers elsewhere, such as some of the more contaminated tributaries to the Great Lakes and in streams near superfund sites in the US. Indeed, one result of the Lake Wabamun spill that inspired us to look at the oil sands was that lake whitefish embryos began to show high incidences of malformations. Since then, similar problems have begun to occur in the Gulf of Mexico following the Deepwater Horizon accident.

Our results show that of the four species of fish that we studied, three have mercury concentrations high enough to require consumption advisories. Although it is unclear whether industrial emissions have contributed to the problem, increasing airborne emissions have been reported by the oil sands industry to the National Pollution Release Inventory during the past decade, and a recent Environment Canada study shows that mercury in fish-eating birds on lakes connected to the Athabasca River has increased considerably. Studies at ELA have shown that mercury added to a lake is rapidly mobilized to enter food chains, and that when mercury sources are decreased, mercury in aquatic food chains also declines rapidly, as Drs. John Rudd and Carol Kelly will show on October 31st. All things considered, it is likely that mercury emissions from the oil sands should be controlled so as not to further jeopardize subsistence users.


Advice for Budding Ecologists

If I were a teen-ager again, I would probably pursue much the same career. I think it is in the genes, because two of my three children, a brother and a first cousin are all aquatic scientists. I think that my children chose the same career because what I did seemed interesting and fun, allowing one an excuse to be outdoors rather than in a stuffy office. Daniel has his own ELA in northern Alaska, where he leads the University of Washington's program to study salmon. His findings on the importance of "portfolio effect" in maintaining healthy populations apply to most species, both aquatic and terrestrial, and is having a huge effect on conservation efforts. He will be the final speaker on Oct 31.

In the 21st century, we desperately need new blood in ecology. We are losing biodiversity and ecosystem services at an alarming rate, the result of simultaneous increases in human population and industrial development. We must curb both of these if we are to continue the wonderful lifestyle that we have in Canada today. We must be careful not to export all of our resources simply because other countries, which have exhausted their own resources, will pay handsomely for them. Future Canadians will also require them, and we must not sell off their legacy.

Many people realize that humans have already exceeded our planet's capacity to support life. Continued human population growth can only be done at the expense of other species, and the global biogeochemical cycles on which higher forms of life depend. Signs are all around us, in rapidly decreasing biodiversity (which is decreasing more rapidly in freshwaters than in any other type of ecosystem), climate warming, ozone depletion, acid rain.

Strangely, most economists and politicians seem oblivious to the problem, and continue to promote an economic system that depends on continuous exponential expansion. Much of the world is already in jeopardy, with both environmental and social upheavals now all but certain.

We must not let the population/exploitation problem come to Canada. We must question the shameless promotion of growth and consumption by politicians and industries, or we will eventually suffer the same fate as more crowded countries, with declining diversity, increased pollution, and eroding quality of life. Already, areas near our southern border are showing signs of overpopulation, jeopardizing water supplies and biodiversity. After all, only 5% of Canada's vast area is estimated to be arable farm land, and importing food from areas more hospitable to agriculture are increasingly expensive and unreliable, due to the high costs of transportation and burgeoning human populations elsewhere on the planet.

A first step must be for society to decide what size our population must be, and not allow growth to continue above that. This alone will require considerable research on the ecology of Canada. As a general rule, we can have a smaller, more affluent population or a larger one with a lower standard of living. Which we choose will be hotly debated, but the bottom line is that we cannot exceed the carrying capacity of our resource base, which must be shared across generations.

Some will say that doing so will mean an end to immigration. I do not believe this to be so. On average, a stable population has 2.1 offspring per couple. Currently, educated southern Canadians have a rate of only 1.4 offspring per couple. At a stable population, this leaves 1/3 of the new "places" for immigrants. If we want more immigrants, we could consider incentives to lower citizens' birth rates even more. Some will say that education for women will get us to where we need to be, but the numbers tell a different story. This alone will not be fast enough.

Consider Alberta: Our population has doubled in 25 years, by far the fastest growth in Canada. If this rate continues, we will share the roads, schools, and ecosystems with 8 million others by 2038, 16 million by 2063, 32 million by 2088, over 40 million by the turn of the next century. What will Alberta be like? We can look to California with its stringent regulations, traffic jams, declining species and social problems for a model. Is this the model Albertans want to follow? I certainly do not.

So, future scientists, we desperately need your help to show us the way. The problem is as challenging as putting a man on the moon, and probably more so. It is far more important. The future of our species, our province, our country and our planet are at stake.