Gov’t Report: Companies Break Commitment to Contain Toxic Tar Sands Waste

Alberta's Energy Resource Conservation Board (ERCB), the agency in charge of regulating the province's energy resources, quietly released a new report on Friday afternoon finding that tar sands companies have "failed to meet their commitments" when it comes to dealing with the massive lakes of toxic sludge that are a by-product of their operations. 

You can download the full PDF version of the report here: ERCB Tailings Management Assessment Report.

The extraction and processing of tar sands oil creates a by-product called "tailings" that must be deposited in large holding "ponds" for further decontamination. These holding areas have become so great, they are more aptly described as large human-made lakes. In their project applications, tar sands companies must commit to converting these lakes into deposits that are suitable for reclamation – areas to be restored to their natural habitat (or a semblance of what they originally were). 

But tar sands companies are failing to follow through on their own reclamation commitments. According to the ERCB's report:

"In their project applications, operators had proposed to convert their tailings ponds into deposits suitable for reclamation. However, operators failed to meet their performance commitments. The volume of fluid tailings, and the area required to hold fluid tailings, continued to grow, and the reclamation of tailings ponds was further delayed." 

In 2009, the ERCB introduced a directive stating tar sands operators had to "slow the growing volumes of fluid tailings and the proliferation of tailings ponds."

The Alberta tar sands are growing at an accelerating rate, requiring more water and increasingly larger tailings ponds.

Two of the main goals of the directive lie at the heart of the long-term environmental, public health and human rights challenges the Alberta tar sands present:

  1. "minimize and eventually eliminate the long-term storage of fluid tailing in the reclamation landscape," and;
  2. "maximize intermediate process water recycling to increase energy efficiency and reduce fresh water import."

In order to separate the tar from the sand, companies use massive amounts of fresh water and produce an estimated 206,000 liters of toxic waste a day. In 2011 alone, tar sands companies used over 170 million cubic meters of water – the equivalent of annual residential water use for 1.7 million Canadians. 

Existing tailings ponds cover 176 square kilometres (67 square miles) of area in Fort McMurray and are expected to grow.

That's a lot of water. And the ERCB says that while companies are helping themselves to fresh water – the majority of which comes from the Athabasca River – they are failing to meet their own commitments to decontaminate and recycle the water they have used. 

The Alberta government claims 80-95% of water used in tar sands operations is 'recycled,' meaning the water is used more than once (and made increasingly toxic) before it winds up in a tailings pond. According to oil sands experts, 95% of the total water used in tar sands surface mining ends up in these toxic tailings ponds.

Many communities rely on the waterways that run through and past the Northern Alberta tar sands operations, and these lakes of sludge are having an impact there as well.

Tailings ponds in Fort McMurray currently hold more than one billion litres of toxic tar sands waste. Government documents confirm the massive ponds are seeping into and contaminating local groundwater.

A recently uncovered Canadian government document confirms what many have suspected for years, that tailings are leaking from the tar sands operations into the groundwater. Another peer-reviewed scientific study published earlier this year found that lakes as far away as 100 km from tar sands operations are being contaminated. 

For communities living in Northern Alberta, many of them First Nations, this is as much an issue of access to fresh water as it is one of human rights and public health.

Frozen Lake Athabasca in Fort Chipewyan, home to the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation

Lake Athabasca, pictured frozen here, lies at the foot of Fort Chipewyan, home of the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation. Residents fear the contamination of the lake and the affect tar sands toxins are having on local fish populations.

According to Alberta's department of health, First Nations living in the community of Fort Chipewyan, 200 kilometers downstream from the Alberta tar sands, have a higher than normal rate of rare and deadly cancers

Chief Allan Adam of the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation

Chief Allan Adam of the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation, a tribe living downstream of the tar sands operations.

There is a lot at stake when it comes to tar sands companies living up to their commitments to decontaminate their toxic water. This latest report by the ERCB should serve as yet another string in a long line of wake up calls for the Alberta government. 

Image Credit: all photos by Kris Krug via flickr

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