Alarm bells ring over acid rain
The Prince Albert Daily Herald
The delicate ecosystems of the northern boreal forests are at risk of lasting damage due to acid rain from oilsands development, according to information compiled by the Saskatchewan Environmental Society.
"If you combine the provincial precipitation numbers with the work that the Canadian Council of Ministers of the Environment has done, it is very clear that the La Loche region and, in general, the lakes of northern Saskatchewan are at risk," said Peter Prebble, director of energy and water policy with the society.
Saskatchewan Environment has a rain collection program that monitors acid rain along the western side of the province.
The collection site in La Loche has had problems with collection - only nine samples have been recorded in the last 16 months, said Murray Hilderman, an air policy architect with Saskat-chewan Environment.
It is not enough to base policy on, he said.
Those nine samples have shown an average pH of 4.98, almost ten times more acidic than normal rainfall, said Prebble.
Alberta's oilsands are the biggest source of acid-rain causing chemicals between the two provinces.
There are other sources of nitrous oxide and sulphur dioxide, but there are at least 150,000 tonnes of emissions released from Alberta, said Prebble.
"(Emissions) blow more into Saskatchewan, then back into Alberta or up into the Northwest Territories ... a large percentage, probably between 60 and 70 per cent of the emissions when the wind is blowing into Saskatchewan," Hilderman said.
Also concerning is a study released by the Canadian Council of Ministers of Environment - a group of environment ministers from federal, provincial and territorial governments - in 2008 showing parts of the La Loche region have already exceeded their critical load for sulphur and nitrogen, said Prebble.
"Once beyond the critical load, biological damage is being done," he said.
The study said northern Saskatchewan soils are the most sensitive to acid in Canada.
Ongoing modelling is underway to show the impact of the acid rain falling now, as well as the projected impact 10 and 15 years into the future, said Hilderman.
"We are working on a northwest sustainable development plan where we will be collecting some more soil samples," he said.
"The warning bells are there, we already have some clear evidence as to what the future is going to hold ... instead of waiting until we have already damaged the ecosystems of the North, how about we do things on a more preventative basis?" said Sandra Morin, the Saskatchewan NDP environment critic.
Morin said the development of the oilsands is happening quickly and discussions between the two provincial governments about the environmental effects should have already occurred. She said she is worried because northern communities will pay the price.
"We recognize that this is an area that needs protecting because of its sensitivity, but we also realize that it is an area that generates employment and wealth for the provincial and federal governments," Hilderman said.
"To find the most cost-effective way to reduce the potential impact is what we are working towards."
Prebble wants more than just monitoring.
"The only way to deal with this, is to stop it," he said. "The time for regulation of Alberta oilsands is right away, because it's the only way to prevent damage to the northern lakes."
The Saskatchewan Environmental Society is calling for individual oilsands projects to be regulated, as well as a regional cap on emissions.