Levels of mercury, lead and 11 other toxic pollutants are highly elevated along parts of the Athabasca River near oilsands developments, new research contends.

The study, led by Erin Kelly and David Schindler of the University of Alberta, found that levels of mercury and thallium downstream from oilsands mines greatly exceed federal and provincial guidelines. As well, they found high levels of cadmium, copper, lead, mercury, nickel, silver and zinc.

The authors of the study say their work directly contradicts claims from government and industry officials that soil and river contamination near the oilsands occurs naturally.

Because the Athabasca River erodes bitumen rock along the McMurray Formation, near Fort McMurray, Alta., oil rises to the water surface naturally in those areas. Government and industry experts have long argued that natural seepage was to blame for river pollution, not oilsands development.

But the researchers of this study say tests conducted upstream from the oilsands operations on areas that are along the McMurray Formation did not show high levels of pollutants.

The researchers collected water from more than 35 sites along the Athabasca River, its tributaries, the Athabasca Delta and Lake Athabasca. They also accumulated winter snowpack from 31 other sites in the region in the spring of 2008.

They found 13 pollutants in water sample taken downstream from the mines -- seven of which exceeded Canada's guidelines for the protection of aquatic life.

They say pollutant concentrations were higher the closer that the sample sites were to oilsands mining operations. The snow samples were also detectably polluted with several elements within a 50-km radius of the oilsands.

The results will appear in the journal, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

It's unclear what the health implications are for the levels of pollutants the research team found. Residents who live downstream along the Athabasca have long complained of high cancer rates that they blame on oilsands mining.

Dr. Schindler believes their study is more evidence that the Regional Aquatics Monitoring Program (RAMP), the industry-led group that oversees water quality in the river, has failed to do its job properly.

Earlier this year, Environment Minister Jim Prentice dismissed Schindler's previous peer-reviewed work as "allegations."

Researchers at Queen's University in Kingston, Ont., and Juneau, Alaska-based Oceana, a non-profit group focused on water quality issues, contributed to Monday's report. The study was funded by the Tides Foundation and the Walter and Duncan Gordon Foundation, two non-profit groups with an interest in environmental projects.