The oilsands operations in Alberta, Canada, where mining companies are using advanced extraction processes to capture fossil fuels, has reportedly been covering the surrounding areas in mercury, a potent neurotoxin that causes many health problems. The Montreal Gazette is reporting that scientists have identified a 19,000 square kilometer area around the oilsands operations where mercury levels are 16 times higher than "background levels."
The contamination has been discovered by Canadian researchers who emphasized that the levels they are seeing in Alberta are actually lower than what has been experienced in Southern Quebec and Ontario, where other mining operations are taking place. The discovery of high levels of mercury contamination is further evidence that oilsands fossil fuel extraction is a much bigger ecological catastrophe than previously though.
Some scientists are concerned that mercury is beginning to show up in wildlife. One researcher has found evidence of higher mercury levels in eggs from species that live near the oilsands operations. More work needs to be done to determine the extent of these effects, but as Grist.org notes, it's yet another reason why the Keystone XL pipeline, which would transport oil from these areas down to the Gulf Coast, is so problematic for the environment and public health.
While the case against fossil fuels often centers around the need to mitigate climate change and identify alternative energy sources, there is also a great deal of damage done to human beings as a result of these mining operations. Not only is there a threat to the long term wellbeing of civilzation, but oilsands production and fracking have presented a more immediate threat to public health as well.