Kathleen C. Brown


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Assessment of mercury enrichment in lake sediment records from Alberta Oil Sands development via fluvial and atmospheric pathways
Mitchell L. Kay, Johan A. Wiklund, Xiaoyu Sun, Cory A. M. Savage, John Adams, Lauren A. MacDonald, Wynona H. Klemt, Kathleen C. Brown, Roland I. Hall, Brent B. Wolfe
Frontiers in Environmental Science, Volume 10

Exploitation of bitumen-rich deposits in the Alberta Oil Sands Region (AOSR) by large-scale mining and processing activities has generated widespread concern about the potential for dispersal of harmful contaminants to aquatic ecosystems via fluvial and atmospheric pathways. The release of mercury has received attention because it is a potent neurotoxin for wildlife and humans. However, knowledge of baseline mercury concentration prior to disturbance is required to evaluate the extent to which oil sands development has contributed mercury to aquatic ecosystems. Here, we use stratigraphic analysis of total mercury concentration ([THg]) in radiometrically dated sediment cores from nine floodplain lakes in the AOSR and downstream Peace-Athabasca Delta (PAD) and two upland lakes in the PAD region to establish pre-1900 baseline [THg] and evaluate if [THg] has become enriched via fluvial and atmospheric pathways since oil sands mining and processing began in 1967. Concentrations of THg in sediment cores from the study lakes range from 0.022–0.096 mg/kg (dry wt.) and are below the Canadian interim sediment quality guidelines for freshwater (0.17 mg/kg). Results demonstrate no enrichment of [THg] above pre-1900 baseline via fluvial pathways at floodplain lakes in the AOSR or PAD. Enrichment of [THg] was detected via atmospheric pathways at upland lakes in the PAD region, but this occurred prior to oil sands development and aligns with long-range transport of emissions from coal combustion and other anthropogenic sources across the northern hemisphere recognized in many other lake sediment records. The inventory of anthropogenic [THg] in the upland lakes in the AOSR is less than at the Experimental Lakes Area of northwestern Ontario (Canada), widely regarded as a “pristine” area. The absence of enrichment of [THg] in lake sediment via fluvial pathways is a critical finding for stakeholders, and we recommend that monitoring at the floodplain lakes be used to inform stewardship as oil sands operators prepare to discharge treated oil sands process waters directly into the Athabasca River upstream of the PAD.


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Evaluating temporal patterns of metals concentrations in floodplain lakes of the Athabasca Delta (Canada) relative to pre-industrial baselines
Mitchell L. Kay, Johan A. Wiklund, Casey R. Remmer, Tanner J. Owca, Wynona H. Klemt, Laura Neary, Kathleen C. Brown, Erin MacDonald, K.P.B. Thomson, Jasmina M. Vucic, Katherine Wesenberg, Roland I. Hall, Brent B. Wolfe
Science of The Total Environment, Volume 704

• Lack of pre-industrial baseline data hampers assessment of oil sands river pollution. • We analyzed metals concentrations in cores of Athabasca Delta floodplain lakes. • No enrichment was detected for metals associated with oil sands development. • Results inform decision on World Heritage status of Wood Buffalo National Park. • A framework has been established for ongoing aquatic ecosystem monitoring. Sediment quality monitoring is widely used to quantify extent of river pollution, but requires knowledge of pre-disturbance conditions in the potentially altered landscape. This has long been identified as a critical aspect to develop for addressing concerns of river pollution in the Alberta Oil Sands Region. Here, we use analyses of sediment cores from eight floodplain lakes spanning a 67 river-km transect across the Athabasca Delta to define pre-1920 (pre-industrial) baseline concentrations for vanadium and five primary pollutants. We then evaluate if sediment metals concentrations have become enriched above baseline since onset of oil sands development and other industrial activities. Results demonstrate no enrichment of metals concentrations (except zinc at one lake) and absence of consistent temporal increases above pre-industrial baselines. Thus, natural processes continue to dominate metal deposition in floodplain lakes of the Athabasca Delta -- an important finding to inform stewardship decisions. The pre-1920 metals concentrations baselines offer a useful tool for ongoing sediment monitoring in aquatic ecosystems of the Athabasca Delta.


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Bi-directional hydrological changes in perched basins of the Athabasca Delta (Canada) in recent decades caused by natural processes
Mitchell L. Kay, Johan A. Wiklund, Casey R. Remmer, Laura Neary, Kathleen C. Brown, Abhishek Ghosh, Erin MacDonald, K.P.B. Thomson, Jasmina M. Vucic, Katherine Wesenberg, Roland I. Hall, Brent B. Wolfe
Environmental Research Communications, Volume 1, Issue 8

[1] Previous studies of river hydrometric records and Indigenous Knowledge holders claim that flood-induced recharge of ecologically important perched basins decreased across the Peace-Athabasca Delta after 1968 due mainly to hydroelectric regulation of Peace River flow. Natural deltaic processes and climate are acknowledged as additional, lesser contributors, but are challenging to evaluate. We use sediment records spanning ∼115 years from nine perched basins across the Athabasca Delta to test if unidirectional drying coincides with river regulation. Results show bi-directional hydrological changes since the early 1980s, not 1968, to reduced flooding in areas east of the Embarras River confluence with Cree/Mamawi creeks and increased flooding northward along the Cree/Mamawi distributary. The timing and pattern pinpoint the 1982 Embarras Breakthrough, a natural avulsion that diverted flow northward and away from the Athabasca Delta terminus, as the principal cause. The results demonstrate the need to factor natural deltaic processes into impending decisions on the delta’s UNESCO World Heritage status and implementation of a federal Action Plan to mitigate widespread drying.