Next-generation sequencing of microbial communities in the Athabasca River and its tributaries in relation to oil sands mining activities.
ABSTRACT: The Athabasca oil sands deposit is the largest reservoir of crude bitumen in the world. Recently, the soaring demand for oil and the availability of modern bitumen extraction technology have heightened exploitation of this reservoir and the potential unintended consequences of pollution in the Athabasca River. The main objective of the present study was to evaluate the potential impacts of oil sands mining on neighboring aquatic microbial community structure. Microbial communities were sampled from sediments in the Athabasca River and its tributaries as well as in oil sands tailings ponds. Bacterial and archaeal 16S rRNA genes were amplified and sequenced using next-generation sequencing technology (454 and Ion Torrent). Sediments were also analyzed for a variety of chemical and physical characteristics. Microbial communities in the fine tailings of the tailings ponds were strikingly distinct from those in the Athabasca River and tributary sediments. Microbial communities in sediments taken close to tailings ponds were more similar to those in the fine tailings of the tailings ponds than to the ones from sediments further away. Additionally, bacterial diversity was significantly lower in tailings pond sediments. Several taxonomic groups of Bacteria and Archaea showed significant correlations with the concentrations of different contaminants, highlighting their potential as bioindicators. We also extensively validated Ion Torrent sequencing in the context of environmental studies by comparing Ion Torrent and 454 data sets and by analyzing control samples.
Project description:For over a decade, the contribution of oil sands mining and processing to the pollution of the Athabasca River has been controversial. We show that the oil sands development is a greater source of contamination than previously realized. In 2008, within 50 km of oil sands upgrading facilities, the loading to the snowpack of airborne particulates was 11,400 T over 4 months and included 391 kg of polycyclic aromatic compounds (PAC), equivalent to 600 T of bitumen, while 168 kg of dissolved PAC was also deposited. Dissolved PAC concentrations in tributaries to the Athabasca increased from 0.009 microg/L upstream of oil sands development to 0.023 microg/L in winter and to 0.202 microg/L in summer downstream. In the Athabasca, dissolved PAC concentrations were mostly <0.025 microg/L in winter and 0.030 microg/L in summer, except near oil sands upgrading facilities and tailings ponds in winter (0.031-0.083 microg/L) and downstream of new development in summer (0.063-0.135 microg/L). In the Athabasca and its tributaries, development within the past 2 years was related to elevated dissolved PAC concentrations that were likely toxic to fish embryos. In melted snow, dissolved PAC concentrations were up to 4.8 microg/L, thus, spring snowmelt and washout during rain events are important unknowns. These results indicate that major changes are needed to the way that environmental impacts of oil sands development are monitored and managed.
Project description:We show that the oil sands industry releases the 13 elements considered priority pollutants (PPE) under the US Environmental Protection Agency's Clean Water Act, via air and water, to the Athabasca River and its watershed. In the 2008 snowpack, all PPE except selenium were greater near oil sands developments than at more remote sites. Bitumen upgraders and local oil sands development were sources of airborne emissions. Concentrations of mercury, nickel, and thallium in winter and all 13 PPE in summer were greater in tributaries with watersheds more disturbed by development than in less disturbed watersheds. In the Athabasca River during summer, concentrations of all PPE were greater near developed areas than upstream of development. At sites downstream of development and within the Athabasca Delta, concentrations of all PPE except beryllium and selenium remained greater than upstream of development. Concentrations of some PPE at one location in Lake Athabasca near Fort Chipewyan were also greater than concentration in the Athabasca River upstream of development. Canada's or Alberta's guidelines for the protection of aquatic life were exceeded for seven PPE-cadmium, copper, lead, mercury, nickel, silver, and zinc-in melted snow and/or water collected near or downstream of development.
Project description:Dispersed clay particles in mine tailings and soft sediments remain suspended for decades, hindering consolidation and challenging effective management of these aqueous slurries. Current geotechnical engineering models of self-weight consolidation of tailings do not consider microbial contribution to sediment behavior, however, here we show that microorganisms indigenous to oil sands tailings change the porewater chemistry and accelerate consolidation of oil sands tailings. A companion paper describes the role of microbes in alteration of clay chemistry in tailings. Microbial metabolism in mature fine tailings (MFT) amended with an organic substrate (hydrolyzed canola meal) produced methane (CH4) and carbon dioxide (CO2). Dissolution of biogenic CO2 lowered the pH of amended MFT to pH 6.4 vs. unamended MFT (pH 7.7). About 12% more porewater was recovered from amended than unamended MFT during 2 months of active microbial metabolism, concomitant with consolidation of tailings. The lower pH in amended MFT dissolved carbonate minerals, thereby releasing divalent cations including calcium (Ca(2+)) and magnesium (Mg(2+)) and increasing bicarbonate (HCO(-) 3) in porewater. The higher concentrations increased the ionic strength of the porewater, in turn reducing the thickness of the diffuse double layer (DDL) of clay particles by reducing the surface charge potential (repulsive forces) of the clay particles. The combination of these processes accelerated consolidation of oil sands tailings. In addition, ebullition of biogenic gases created transient physical channels for release of porewater. In contrast, saturating the MFT with non-biogenic CO2 had little effect on consolidation. These results have significant implications for management and reclamation of oil sands tailings ponds and broad importance in anaerobic environments such as contaminated harbors and estuaries containing soft sediments rich in clays and organics.
Project description:Anthropogenic activities have resulted in the intensified use of water resources. For example, open pit bitumen extraction by Canada's oil sands operations uses an estimated volume of three barrels of water for every barrel of oil produced. The waste tailings-oil sands process water (OSPW)-are stored in holding ponds, and present an environmental concern as they are comprised of residual hydrocarbons and metals. Following the hypothesis that endogenous OSPW microbial communities have an enhanced tolerance to heavy metals, we tested the capacity of planktonic and biofilm populations from OSPW to withstand metal ion challenges, using Cupriavidus metallidurans, a known metal-resistant organism, for comparison. The toxicity of the metals toward biofilm and planktonic bacterial populations was determined by measuring the minimum biofilm inhibitory concentrations (MBICs) and planktonic minimum inhibitory concentrations (MICs) using the MBEC ™ assay. We observed that the OSPW community and C. metallidurans had similar tolerances to 22 different metals. While thiophillic elements (Te, Ag, Cd, Ni) were found to be most toxic, the OSPW consortia demonstrated higher tolerance to metals reported in tailings ponds (Al, Fe, Mo, Pb). Metal toxicity correlated with a number of physicochemical characteristics of the metals. Parameters reflecting metal-ligand affinities showed fewer and weaker correlations for the community compared to C. metallidurans, suggesting that the OSPW consortia may have developed tolerance mechanisms toward metals present in their environment.
Project description:Well-designed monitoring approaches are needed to assess effects of industrial development on downstream aquatic environments and guide environmental stewardship. Here, we develop and apply a monitoring approach to detect potential enrichment of metals concentrations in surficial lake sediments of the Peace-Athabasca Delta (PAD), northern Alberta, Canada. Since the ecological integrity of the PAD is strongly tied to river floodwaters that replenish lakes in the delta, and the PAD is located downstream of the Alberta oil sands, concerns have been raised over the potential transport of industry-supplied metals to the PAD via the Athabasca River. Surface sediment samples were collected in September 2017 from 61 lakes across the delta, and again in July 2018 from 20 of the same lakes that had received river floodwaters 2 months earlier, to provide snapshots of metals concentrations (Be, Cd, Cr, Cu, Ni, Pb, V, and Zn) that have recently accumulated in these lakes. To assess for anthropogenic enrichment, surficial sediment metals concentrations were normalized to aluminum and compared to pre-industrial baseline (i.e., reference) metal-aluminum linear relations for the Athabasca and Peace sectors of the PAD developed from pre-1920 measurements in lake sediment cores. Numerical analysis demonstrates no marked enrichment of these metals concentrations above pre-1920 baselines despite strong ability (>?99% power) to detect enrichment of 10%. Measurements of river sediment collected by the Regional Aquatics- and Oil Sands-Monitoring Programs (RAMP/OSM) also did not exceed pre-1920 concentrations. Thus, results presented here show no evidence of substantial oil sands-derived metals enrichment of sediment supplied by the Athabasca River to lakes in the PAD and demonstrate the usefulness of these methods as a monitoring framework.
Project description:Consolidation of clay particles in aqueous tailings suspensions is a major obstacle to effective management of oil sands tailings ponds in northern Alberta, Canada. We have observed that microorganisms indigenous to the tailings ponds accelerate consolidation of mature fine tailings (MFT) during active metabolism by using two biogeochemical pathways. In Pathway I, microbes alter porewater chemistry to indirectly increase consolidation of MFT. Here, we describe Pathway II comprising significant, direct and complementary biogeochemical reactions with MFT mineral surfaces. An anaerobic microbial community comprising Bacteria (predominantly Clostridiales, Synergistaceae, and Desulfobulbaceae) and Archaea (Methanolinea/Methanoregula and Methanosaeta) transformed Fe(III) minerals in MFT to amorphous Fe(II) minerals during methanogenic metabolism of an added organic substrate. Synchrotron analyses suggested that ferrihydrite (5Fe2O3. 9H2O) and goethite (α-FeOOH) were the dominant Fe(III) minerals in MFT. The formation of amorphous iron sulfide (FeS) and possibly green rust entrapped and masked electronegative clay surfaces in amended MFT. Both Pathways I and II reduced the surface charge potential (repulsive forces) of the clay particles in MFT, which aided aggregation of clays and formation of networks of pores, as visualized using cryo-scanning electron microscopy (SEM). These reactions facilitated the egress of porewater from MFT and increased consolidation of tailings solids. These results have large-scale implications for management and reclamation of oil sands tailings ponds, a burgeoning environmental issue for the public and government regulators.
Project description:This study examined factors contributing to temporal variability (2009-2017) in total mercury (THg) concentrations in aquatic bird eggs collected in the Peace-Athabasca Delta and Lake Athabasca in northern Alberta. Factors examined included year of egg collection, site of collection, bird species, bird diets, annual surface-mineable oil sands production, forest fires, and flow of the Athabasca River. Surface mining activities associated with Alberta's Athabasca oil sands are situated north of Fort McMurray, Alberta, adjacent to the northward-flowing Athabasca River. Previous studies have found that oil sands industrial operations release mercury into the local (within ~50 km) environment. An information-theoretic approach revealed that the best model for explaining egg THg levels included Athabasca River flow, bird food source, and bird species. Variability in egg THg levels was partly a reflection of differences in food sources, e.g. proportions of aquatic versus terrestrial food in bird diets. Annual fluctuations in maximal flow of the Athabasca River were also important with eggs collected following years of high maximal flow exhibiting higher THg concentrations. Furthermore, eggs collected in years of high versus low flow differed in their stable Hg isotope composition with less mass-independent fraction of 199Hg and 201Hg in years of high flow. Riverine processes associated with suspended sediment were likely critical in regulating Hg availability to nesting birds. This study highlights the importance of the Athabasca River as a conduit for Hg transport to ecologically-sensitive downstream ecosystems such as the Peace-Athabasca Delta and Wood Buffalo National Park (a UNESCO World Heritage Site). Human activities that increase atmospheric Hg deposition to the Athabasca River watershed, or that enhance Hg releases to the river through erosion of Hg-bearing soils, will likely increase the availability of Hg to organisms inhabiting downstream areas.
Project description:The absence of well-executed environmental monitoring in the Athabasca oil sands (Alberta, Canada) has necessitated the use of indirect approaches to determine background conditions of freshwater ecosystems before development of one of the Earth's largest energy deposits. Here, we use highly resolved lake sediment records to provide ecological context to ?50 y of oil sands development and other environmental changes affecting lake ecosystems in the region. We show that polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) within lake sediments, particularly C1-C4-alkylated PAHs, increased significantly after development of the bitumen resource began, followed by significant increases in dibenzothiophenes. Total PAH fluxes in the modern sediments of our six study lakes, including one site ?90 km northwest of the major development area, are now ?2.5-23 times greater than ?1960 levels. PAH ratios indicate temporal shifts from primarily wood combustion to petrogenic sources that coincide with greater oil sands development. Canadian interim sediment quality guidelines for PAHs have been exceeded since the mid-1980s at the most impacted site. A paleoecological assessment of Daphnia shows that this sentinel zooplankter has not yet been negatively impacted by decades of high atmospheric PAH deposition. Rather, coincident with increases in PAHs, climate-induced shifts in aquatic primary production related to warmer and drier conditions are the primary environmental drivers producing marked daphniid shifts after ?1960 to 1970. Because of the striking increase in PAHs, elevated primary production, and zooplankton changes, these oil sands lake ecosystems have entered new ecological states completely distinct from those of previous centuries.
Project description:Sediments from the Athabasca River and its tributaries naturally contain bitumen at various concentrations, but the impacts of this variation on the ecology of the river are unknown. Here, we used controlled rotating biofilm reactors in which we recirculated diluted sediments containing various concentrations of bituminous compounds taken from the Athabasca River and three tributaries. Biofilms exposed to sediments having low and high concentrations of bituminous compounds were compared. The latter were 29% thinner, had a different extracellular polysaccharide composition, 67% less bacterial biomass per ?m2, 68% less cyanobacterial biomass per ?m2, 64% less algal biomass per ?m2, 13% fewer protozoa per cm2, were 21% less productive, and had a 33% reduced content in chlorophyll a per mm2 and a 20% reduction in the expression of photosynthetic genes, but they had a 23% increase in the expression of aromatic hydrocarbon degradation genes. Within the Bacteria, differences in community composition were also observed, with relatively more Alphaproteobacteria and Betaproteobacteria and less Cyanobacteria, Bacteroidetes, and Firmicutes in biofilms exposed to high concentrations of bituminous compounds. Altogether, our results suggest that biofilms that develop in the presence of higher concentrations of bituminous compounds are less productive and have lower biomass, linked to a decrease in the activities and abundance of photosynthetic organisms likely due to inhibitory effects. However, within this general inhibition, some specific microbial taxa and functional genes are stimulated because they are less sensitive to the inhibitory effects of bituminous compounds or can degrade and utilize some bitumen-associated compounds.
Project description:Exploitation of the Alberta oil sands, the world's third-largest crude oil reserve, requires fresh water from the Athabasca River, an allocation of 4.4% of the mean annual flow. This allocation takes into account seasonal fluctuations but not long-term climatic variability and change. This paper examines the decadal-scale variability in river discharge in the Athabasca River Basin (ARB) with (i) a generalized least-squares (GLS) regression analysis of the trend and variability in gauged flow and (ii) a 900-y tree-ring reconstruction of the water-year flow of the Athabasca River at Athabasca, Alberta. The GLS analysis removes confounding transient trends related to the Pacific Decadal Oscillation (PDO) and Pacific North American mode (PNA). It shows long-term declining flows throughout the ARB. The tree-ring record reveals a larger range of flows and severity of hydrologic deficits than those captured by the instrumental records that are the basis for surface water allocation. It includes periods of sustained low flow of multiple decades in duration, suggesting the influence of the PDO and PNA teleconnections. These results together demonstrate that low-frequency variability must be considered in ARB water allocation, which has not been the case. We show that the current and projected surface water allocations from the Athabasca River for the exploitation of the Alberta oil sands are based on an untenable assumption of the representativeness of the short instrumental record.