Northern Rivers Ecosystem Initiative: Distribution and Effects of Contaminants

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In response to a number of recommendations following the Northern Rivers Basin Studies (NRBS) contaminant program, the Northern Rivers Ecosystem Initiative (NREI) focused considerable attention on assessing contaminants from specific sources including pulp mill effluents, atmospheric transport of mercury and the Alberta oil sands operations. NRBS identified a number of major contaminants of concern including polychlorinated biphenyls, dioxins and furans, mercury and various hydrocarbons. Together, the NRBS and the NREI studies have demonstrated major declines in the levels of dioxins and furans over the last decade as pulp and paper mills have changed their process and treatment strategies in response to new Federal regulations. Polychlorinated biphenyls however, continue to be a concern for the region as their levels have not declined in fish and sediments over the course of these studies. Higher levels in sediments downstream of Grande Prairie and Hinton were identified, but the source of these contaminants remains unknown. Chlorinated pesticides were also investigated, and although toxaphene, DDT and other chlorinated organic pesticides were detected in fish tissue, they were present at very low levels. Studies on the oil sands industry in northern Alberta demonstrated limited impacts on the Athabasca River to date, although studies did identify slight to moderate impacts of natural oil seeps on fish and benthic communities in tributary streams. NREI studies also identified endocrine active compounds in the three pulp and paper mill effluents tested, but endocrine disruptive effects in wild fish were minimal. Municipal sewage effluents also contain endocrine active compounds and it is recommended that monitoring continue around these point sources.

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