Millions of litres of tainted oilsands water leaking

Posted by admin on Dec 9th, 2008

Mike De Souza. Canwest News Service. Tuesday, December 09, 2008

OTTAWA – Oilsands production is releasing four billion litres of contaminated water into Alberta’s groundwater and natural ecosystems every year, according to a new national report that was immediately dismissed as “false” by the provincial government. The annual volume of water pollution in 2007 would have been enough to fill Toronto’s Rogers Centre, but could be stopped if the federal government started enforcing its Fisheries Act, the report says.

“Virtually everyone close to the tarsands industry knows that all tarsands tailings ponds leak – even the new ones – and that while steps are taken to recapture the leakage, a significant portion of contaminated water still escapes into the environment,” said the study, 11 Million Litres a Day: the Tar Sands’ Leaking Legacy, released by Environmental Defence.

The report is the first comprehensive examination of water pollution from the mines in the Alberta industry and was prepared using the figures from environmental assessment applications submitted by oilsands companies.

The oilsands production process consists of using hot water to separate the oil from sand, resulting in tailings ponds that would remain contaminated for decades. The report calculated that the total volume of water pollution could increase by five times over the next 10 years depending on when new oilsands projects start production.

“Tarsands tailings water is widely acknowledged to be harmful to human health and the environment,” the report said. “Experiments with this water on fish have shown serious reproductive impacts. Studies on birds have found increased mortality rates, and experiments on plants have shown delayed germination and lower seedling weights.”

Matt Price, who wrote the Environmental Defence report, said that the federal government should intervene since the contamination is crossing jurisdictional boundaries from Alberta into Saskatchewan and the Northwest Territories.

“We think they (federal regulators) are turning a blind eye to tailings ponds,” said Price, the energy and climate project manager at the environmental research group. “We just think that ever since Ralph Klein (was premier), they’ve sort of been chased out of Alberta and fearful of enforcing the laws.”

A spokesperson for Environment Minister Jim Prentice referred questions to Environment Canada, which said it needed more time to examine the report before commenting.

However, a scientist from Alberta’s Environment Department said the report is misleading people by suggesting that the waste from tailings ponds are contaminating natural ecosystems. The provincial government says that most of the waste is going into deep aquifers that are already naturally contaminated by the geology of the oilsands.

“They make some statements that are patently false,” said Preston McEachern, who is section head for science research and innovation in the oilsands environmental management division of Alberta Environment. “The problem with the report, at least the way I see it is structured, is it basically gives the impression that these seepages (from tailings ponds) are turning into surface run-off and going directly into the Athabasca River. That’s just not the case.”

McEachern, whose division was created less than two years ago, said the Alberta government is spending millions of dollars for research on the environmental impact of the tailings ponds, but he said it was confident that it can prevent any serious contamination of groundwater or ecosystems.

“We know enough in terms of dealing with mitigation for aquifers that would be at risk,” said McEachern. “Occasionally problems do occur . . . but we’re finding now that are systems are set up well enough that we detect them right away before they will ever become a risk to the environment.”

He said another important aspect of research is looking into eliminating waste from tailings ponds altogether.

“That’s the holy grail of all of this,” said McEachern.

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