The acute toxicity of bitumen-influenced groundwaters from the oil sands region to aquatic organisms


The extraction of surface mined bitumen from oil sands deposits in northern Alberta, Canada produces large quantities of liquid tailings waste, termed oil sands process-affected water (OSPW), which are stored in large tailings ponds. OSPW-derived chemicals from several tailings ponds migrating past containment structures and through groundwater systems pose a concern for surface water contamination. The present study investigated the toxicity of groundwater from near-field sites adjacent to a tailings pond with OPSW influence and far-field sites with only natural oil sands bitumen influence. The acute toxicity of unfractionated groundwater and isolated organic fractions was assessed using a suite of aquatic organisms (Pimephales promelas, Oryzias latipes, Daphnia magna, Hyalella azteca, Lampsilis spp., Ceriodaphnia dubia, Hexagenia spp., and Vibrio fischeri). Assessment of unfractionated groundwater demonstrated toxicity towards all invertebrates in at least one far-field sample, with both near-field and far-field samples with bitumen influence toxic towards P. promelas, while no toxicity was observed for O. latipes. When assessing the unfractionated groundwater and isolated organic fractions from near-field and far-field groundwater sites, P. promelas and H. azteca were the most sensitive to organic components, while D. magna and L. cardium were most sensitive to the inorganic components. Groundwater containing appreciable amounts of dissolved organics exhibited similar toxicities to sensitive species regardless of an OSPW or natural bitumen source. The lack of a clear distinction in relative acute toxicities between near-field and far-field samples indicates that the water-soluble chemicals associated with bitumen are acutely toxic to several aquatic organisms. This result, combined with the similarities in chemical profiles between bitumen-influenced groundwater originating from OSPW and/or natural sources, suggests that the industrial bitumen extraction processes corresponding to the tailings pond in this study are not contributing unique toxic substances to groundwater, relative to natural bitumen compounds present in groundwater flow systems.

Authors: Anthony E Bauer, L Mark Hewitt, James W Roy, Joanne L Parrott, Adrienne J Bartlett, Patricia L Gillis, Warren P Norwood, Martina D Rudy, Sheena D Campbell, Maegan R Rodrigues, Lisa R Brown, Ruth Vanderveen, Lorna E Deeth, Emily A M Holman, Joseph Salerno, Julie R Marentette, Christine Lavalle, Cheryl Sullivan, Kallie Shires, Melissa Galicia, Julian Rubino, Mitra Brown, Alicia O’Neill, Greg Bickerton, D George Dixon, Richard A Frank
; Full Source: The Science of the total environment 2022 Aug 1;157676. doi: 10.1016/j.scitotenv.2022.157676.