The International Joint Commission’s Great Lakes Science Advisory Board has provided a report on the potential ecological impacts of transporting crude oil through the Great Lakes Basin.

With increased oil production in Canada and the U.S. since 2010, more oil has been moving through the Great Lakes region via pipeline and rail. “This ongoing transport of crude oil has highlighted the need to better understand potential threats to regional aquatic ecosystems and the region’s preparedness to respond to spills,” states the new report.

The findings and recommendations for additional research and monitoring needs are included in the report, Potential Ecological Impacts of Crude Oil Transport in the Great Lakes Basin.

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Considering the available scientific literature, the committee found that all levels of the aquatic food chain would be impacted by a spill, from plankton to fish to fish-eating birds and mammals. Because the lakes provide the largest source of fresh surface water for almost 40 million people and drinking water for many of these residents, the risk of a spill affecting drinking water may be significant, particularly when currents transport crude oil to the vicinity of drinking water intakes.

The report found that existing crude oil transport infrastructure near or in the Great Lakes makes the ecosystem particularly vulnerable to spills, particularly in 15 areas the committee identified based on their level of biodiversity and as highly valued habitats for fish spawning, such as estuaries, rivers, and bays. Most areas are near oil pipelines or rail corridors, and five areas are near refineries.

The committee also concluded that adequate response to an oil spill to minimize damage is critical. The report highlights the key government agencies responsible for spill response, as well as the types of actions undertaken to contain and remove spilled oil. Despite capabilities that exist for spill response, challenges remain for spill response in ice-covered waters, for spills of heavier crudes that sink immediately following a spill or after weathering, and for sensitive habitats where response actions may negatively impact those habitats.

In total, the report provides twelve recommendations “for improved understanding of potential impacts of crude oil spills on water quality and ecosystems of the Great Lakes basin.” The recommendations cover increasing the identification of vulnerable areas; addressing a lack of scientific knowledge regarding crude oil impacts on freshwater environments; and expanding monitoring and coordination of crude oil on both sides of the border, among other things.

The complete report is available here.

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