Oil sands development contributes elements toxic at low concentrations to the Athabasca River and its tributaries
We show that the oil sands industry releases the 13 elements considered priority pollutants (PPE) under the US Environmental Protection Agency's Clean Water Act, via air and water, to the Athabasca River and its watershed. In the 2008 snowpack, all PPE except selenium were greater near oil sands developments than at more remote sites. Bitumen upgraders and local oil sands development were sources of airborne emissions. Concentrations of mercury, nickel, and thallium in winter and all 13 PPE in summer were greater in tributaries with watersheds more disturbed by development than in less disturbed watersheds. In the Athabasca River during summer, concentrations of all PPE were greater near developed areas than upstream of development. At sites downstream of development and within the Athabasca Delta, concentrations of all PPE except beryllium and selenium remained greater than upstream of development. Concentrations of some PPE at one location in Lake Athabasca near Fort Chipewyan were also greater than concentration in the Athabasca River upstream of development. Canada's or Alberta's guidelines for the protection of aquatic life were exceeded for seven PPE—cadmium, copper, lead, mercury, nickel, silver, and zinc—in melted snow and/or water collected near or downstream of development.