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Tar sands mining dirtier than thought: research

WASHINGTON--The amount of harmful pollutants released in the process of recovering oil from tar sands in western Canada is likely far higher than corporate interests say, university researchers said Monday.

Actual levels of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbon (PAH) emissions into the air may be two to three times higher than estimated, said the findings in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, a peer-reviewed U.S. journal.

The study raises new questions about the accuracy of environmental impact assessments on the tar sands, just days after a U.S. State Department report said the controversial Keystone pipeline project to bring oil from Canada to Texas would have little impact on climate change or the environment.

Current estimates do not account for the evaporation of PAHs from wastewater pools known as tailing ponds, which are believed to be a major source of pollution, said researchers at the University of Toronto.

According to corporate interests which are responsible for projecting their environmental impact, the Athabasca oil sands beneath Alberta, Canada — which hold the third largest reserve of crude oil known in the world — are only spewing as much pollution into the air as sparsely populated Greenland, where no big industry exists.

Lead study author Frank Wania, a professor in the department of physical and environmental sciences, described the corporate estimates as “inadequate and incomplete.”

“If you use these officially reported emissions for the oil sands area you get an emissions density that is lower than just about anywhere else in the world,” he told AFP.

“We need a better accounting of the contaminants being released from these operations,” he added.

“Only with a complete and accurate account of the emissions is it actually possible to make a meaningful assessment of the environmental impact and of the risk to human health.”

Student Project

The research began as a term paper project by his student, Abha Parajulee, and was funded only by internal resources at the University of Toronto, he said.

She examined emissions estimates from environmental impact assessments that corporations must file before any new projects can begin to coax oil from the Athabasca oil sands.

She compared them with measurements in the field by academic scientists and by the federal ministry of the environment, known as Environment Canada.

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