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A warning to T&T: Oil spills killing river, marine life

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Published: 
Sunday, August 10, 2014

University of Alberta biologist Dr David Schindler says deformed fish found downstream from the huge tar sands mines in Alberta, Canada, are similar to the deformities found in fish in the wake of oil spills. 

He said T&T's marine and river life could suffer a similar fate as a result of oils spills here—such as last month’s Petrotrin oil spills in the Guaracara area, and the December 2013 south-west peninsula oil spills. He also said any future tar sands development in Trinidad would likely cause similar toxic problems.

Related pollution

Petrotrin had used an unspecified quantity of chemical dispersants, including the controversial Corexit, to “clean up” oil spills in La Brea and environs in December 2013. Corexit had previously been used (with claims of subsequent toxic results to marine life) in the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill in Alaska, where hundreds of thousands of barrels of oil were spilled into the sea; and in Florida’s 2010 Deepwater Horizon disaster, where nearly five million barrels of oil spilled into the Gulf of Mexico.

Schindler, who co-authored a 2010 study that revealed highly toxic contaminants such as mercury and lead in the Athabasca River, told the Sunday Guardian recently, via e-mail: 

“Tumors, lesions, and malformations of several sorts followed the Exxon Valdez spill and the recent Deepwater Horizon accident... Tar sands mining [is just] a slow motion [form of] oil spill....Mechanisms are not well known, but Environment Canada scientists have shown that fish embryos developing on sediments contaminated with bitumen have an extremely high incidence [of deformity].”

“[Deformities in organisms] are also common in streams below some US Superfund sites (a Superfund site is an uncontrolled or abandoned US site with hazardous waste).”

End result: fish death

Schindler said most of the fish in such contaminated areas die, but the survivors were enough to appear in frequencies of several per cent in many cases. Schindler said part of the problem was caused by compromising fishes' immune systems, rendering them very susceptible to fungal, viral and bacterial infections. 

He said the best work on the problem now was near the Deepwater Horizon, where a number of fish disease specialists were studying the fish and invertebrates.

Schindler said that tar sands development anywhere was likely to cause similar problems because accidents always occur.

Aboud: No to tar sands here, unless tech improves

Secretary of Fishermen and Friends of the Sea Gary Aboud claimed T&T was already experiencing fish deaths in La Brea due to the Petrotrin oil spills. He said the Institute of Marine Affairs and the Environmental Management Authority have not done any significant investigation into the matter. 

Aboud believes given T&T's “less than stellar” environmental management track record, the country should not proceed with any tar sands mining until tar sands extraction technology improves—or until the “back-a-yard chicken-farm mentality of public administration” can evolve to a standard that protects the public interest.

Who is Dr David Schindler?

Dr David Schindler is an internationally celebrated scientist who has led efforts to protect fresh water resources in Canada and around the world. His groundbreaking research has served as a clarion call alerting authorities and the public to the effects of pollutants and climate change on the environment. He is Killam Memorial Professor of Ecology at the University of Alberta, Edmonton. From 1968 to 1989, he founded and directed the Experimental Lakes Project of the Canadian Department of Fisheries and Oceans near Kenora, Ontario, conducting interdisciplinary research on the effects of eutrophication, acid rain, radioactive elements and climate change on boreal ecosystems. Schindler's work has influenced ecology management policy in the United States, Canada, and Europe, and he has been recognised with some of the highest honours in his field, including the first annual Stockholm Water Prize in 1991 and the Volvo International Environment Prize in 1998.