Carcinogen Levels in Oil Sands Waste Water Increasing, Canada Admits

Levels of arsenic, cadmium, lead and nickel in giant 'tailings' lakes have increased as much as 30 percent in four years, new government data reveals

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Newly released data from the Canadian government affirm that the booming oil sands industry in Alberta is leaving behind a rising environmental toll from toxic sludge ponds.

Figures released by the government-run Environment Canada reveal a jump in the level of carcinogens dumped in mining waste lakes, or "tailings ponds," like arsenic, nickel, cadmium, benzene and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs).

"Sizable quantities of heavy metals" were reported, the agency said.

In total, the country’s five active oil sands mines released around 50,000 tons of potentially harmful pollutants in waste lakes between 2006 and 2009, according to preliminary records in the National Pollutant Release Inventory (NPRI).

During that time, the amount of arsenic, which is particularly harmful to human health, increased 26 percent — from 256 thousand kilograms in 2006 to 322 thousand kilograms in 2009. The data also shows that cadmium levels surged some 36 percent; nickel shot up around 30 percent, along with lead, a substance know to damage the brain.

Mercury levels, another potent neurotoxin, rose 13 percent in the same period.

The facilities, run by Syncrude Canada, Suncor Energy, Canadian Natural Resources and Royal Dutch Shell, deposited just over 50 different tailings in their ponds last year.

Environment Canada expressed some worries.

"While tailings … in Canada are managed to reduce the risk of environmental contamination, concerns remain due to acidic drainage, potential leakage from tailings ponds and the possibility of wildlife contact with the tailings," it said of its findings.

Simon Dyer, oil sands program director at the Pembina Institute in Canada, said that while the data is not unexpected, it is nonetheless significant in that it makes exact figures public for the first time.

"[It is] very significant … having this in the public sphere," Dyer told SolveClimate News. "In Alberta, industry talks about these things as benign water recycling structures in a way that even questions the toxicity. Clearly that’s not the case."

Lawsuit Spurns Action

The disclosure of the tailings pollution was ordered as part of a lawsuit filed by Ottawa-based EcoJustice in November 2007, on behalf of Great Lakes United, a coalition of advocacy groups, and MiningWatch Canada, a mining industry watchdog group.

In 2009, the Federal Court of Canada ordered the Canadian government to disclose data on both waste ponds and waste rock from all mining operations.
Previously, miners were responsible for declaring substances pumped into air, water and land only, but not in liquid stored in man-made ponds.

In all, 85 mining facilities complied with disclosure requirements, Environment Canada said, including all five of the oil sands majors. Their contribution accounted for around 10 percent of the 500,000 tons in tailings and waste rock for 2009. 

The concern, say advocates, is that the industry is on track to grow by 40 percent by 2020, according to estimates by the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers (CAPP), a national trade association.

"More mines [will be] coming online in the coming years," said Dyer. "We’ll expect to see more companies reporting and those cumulative amounts will obviously grow."

While the original court case was opposed by Canadian mining interests, CAPP said they welcome the beefed-up reporting requirements.

"Transparency and reporting processes like NPRI are essential to understanding industrial contaminants and balancing our need for environmental protection, economic growth and secure reliable supply from our resources," CAPP said in a statement.

‘More Questions Than Answers’

Separating the tarry, oil-bearing bitumen from the rock of the oil sands requires a caustic mixture of hot water and chemicals. For every barrel of bitumen extracted, as much as six barrels of contaminated water accumulate in the man-made ponds.

Advocates say the ponds — which cover 65 square miles of boreal forest and wetlands, according to the Alberta Energy Resources Conservation Board (ERCB) — are leaching bitumen and chemicals into groundwater and surface water. A report released in 2008 by Environmental Defense Canada said 11 million liters leak each day.

The Alberta government, which contests that figure, is not obligated to report the volume of seepage. Dyer said the NRPI data throws a spotlight on the need for that information.

"[The NRPI data] has actually created more questions than it answers," he said.

"What we still want to know is actually what proportion of those are actually making their way into groundwater and seeping out of these tailings structures."

However, that could be a long time coming, he suggested.

"Tailings clean up went virtually unregulated for the past 40 years," Dyer said.

Regulations Still Weak

Things began to change in February 2009, when the ERCB, overseer of energy projects in the province, ordered firms to slash their wet tailings waste 50 percent by 2013 and to switch to a dry tailings instead under Directive 074.

But enforcement has been lax, environmental groups lament. A case in point, they say, was ERCB’s approval last week of Imperial Oil’s plan for a tailings pond at its new $7.6 billion oil sands facility  even though it does not meet the 2009 directive. The project is slated to begin operations in 2012.

Imperial Oil said it did not have the technology to meet ERCB targets until 2018. ERCB gave the firm an exemption for now but demanded that it exceed the agency’s targets in seven years.

ERCB says that oil sands operators so far have committed more than $1.5 billion in upgrades to comply with its Directive.

"While conducting the technical review of each tailings plan, the ERCB has worked with the operators to ensure every operator is taking all possible actions to meet the requirements of Directive 074 while considering each project’s specific geological and technical requirements," the agency declares.

Dyer called the Imperial Oil ruling "a bit problematic."

"Basically, Imperial’s been given a seven-year exemption in terms of meeting requirements to start solidifying its tailings waste," he told SolveClimate News. "Clearly they’ve taken a unfortunately a very flexible approach to enforcing the directive."

"It doesn’t paint a very strong picture about how serious Alberta is at actually regulating this problem," he added.

Joe Obad, associate director of Water Matters, an Alberta nonprofit dedicated to watershed protection, said in a statement that the move by ERCB "should be a concern to all Albertans and Canadians."

"Directive 074 was a meaningful step taken by the government to reduce toxic tailings," he added, "and now we have companies negotiating their way through extensions and exceptions of various kinds."

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