Oil sands mining has been linked to increasing atmospheric deposition of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) in the Athabasca oil sands region (AOSR), but known sources cannot explain the quantity of PAHs in environmental samples. PAHs were measured in living Sphagnum moss (24 sites, n=68), in sectioned peat cores (4 sites, n=161), and snow (7 sites, n=19) from ombrotrophic bogs in the AOSR. Prospective source samples were also analyzed, including petroleum coke (petcoke, from both delayed and fluid coking), fine tailings, oil sands ore and naturally exposed bitumen. Average PAH concentrations in near-field moss (199 ng/g, n=11) were significantly higher (p=0.035) than in far-field moss (118 ng/g, n=13), and increasing temporal trends were detected in 3 peat cores collected closest to industrial activity. A chemical mass balance model estimated that delayed petcoke was the major source of PAHs to living moss, and among three peat cores the contribution to PAHs from delayed petcoke increased over time, accounting for 45-95% of PAHs in contemporary layers. Petcoke was also estimated to be a major source of vanadium, nickel, and molybdenum. Scanning electron microscopy with energy dispersive X-ray spectroscopy confirmed large petcoke particles (>10 μm) in snow at near-field sites. Petcoke dust has not previously been considered in environmental impact assessments of oil sands upgrading, but improved dust control from growing stockpiles may mitigate future risks.
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