, Volume 8, Issue 1, pp 39-51

Contaminant sources, distribution and fate in the Athabasca, Peace and Slave River Basins, Canada

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Northern river ecosystems worldwide are under increasing environmental stress from degrading developments that influence water quality and associated ecological integrity. In particular, contaminant-related threats to these systems are rising from enhanced industrial and municipal effluent discharges along with elevated non-point source inputs related to land-use activities such as forestry, agriculture, mining and long-range atmospheric transport. In this regard, the contaminants program of the Northern River Basins Study (NRBS) in western Canada identified key contaminant sources to the Athabasca, Slave and Peace river basins (particularly related to pulp-mill developments) and assessed their environmental fate and distribution in water and sediments. The study also developed and employed new analytical approaches and generated improved models to predict contaminant transport and fate in the aquatic environment and related food webs. Consequently the study focused on those contaminant families identified in characterization studies as arising from key point- and non-point sources within the basins or as being of greatest toxicological significance. These included resin acids, polychlorinated dioxins and furans, polychlorinated biphenyls, chlorinated phenolics, polyaromatic hydrocarbons and selected heavy metals such as mercury. Low or non-detectable concentrations of a number of contaminant groups were found in the ambient water phase including chlorinated phenolics, some chlorinated dioxins and furans and some resin acids. For both suspended and depositional sediments, significant declines were observed over the study period for the major chlorinated contaminant groups tested, correlating directly with the implementation of improved effluent treatment in many of the pulp mills located in the basins. In general, the environmental levels of chlorinated organic and metal contaminants in water or sediments were low and within Canadian health or environmental guidelines. It is hoped that the approaches used and lessons learned from the NRBS will be of use to others assessing contaminant and multiple stressor issues in other large river ecosystems.