STOP: Stop Tar Sands Operations Permanently

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Tar Sands Industry Poised to Pollute Canada’s Largest Freshwater Aquifer

Posted by mhudema on July 28, 2008

Tar Sands Industry Poised to Pollute Canada’s Largest Freshwater Aquifer

CALGARY (July 24, 2008) – The Métis Nation in northeastern Alberta has
discovered that many of Alberta’s in situ tar sands projects sit immediately
below a vast groundwater channel system that flows into the Athabasca River.
Given the accidental steam blowouts that have already occurred in the
region, the potential for pollution of Canada’s largest freshwater aquifer
is very real.

“We are deeply concerned about these blowouts,” says Rick Boucher,
vice-president of the Métis Nation of Alberta, Region One. “It’s just a
matter of time before an accident causes injury or death, and pollution of
this massive underground freshwater system.”

With growing water shortages in the province, the potential for groundwater
contamination is cause for alarm. “It will be of utmost importance to future
generations and the environment that we better safeguard this groundwater
resource,” says Carolyn Campbell, conservation specialist with Alberta
Wilderness Association.

The fresh groundwater channel system underlying northeastern Alberta is
believed to be the largest buried bedrock channel in the Plains Region of
North America, according to the Alberta Geological Survey. Reaching widths
of more than 25 km, it stretches over more than 200 km, from within
Saskatchewan westward to the Athabasca River.

Below this channel system lie numerous Steam Assisted Gravity Drainage
(SAGD) tar sands developments. SAGD injects high-pressure steam deep into
the ground to liquefy the tarry deposits found there. Once underground, the
steam forms a high-temperature steam chamber, within which the heated
bitumen becomes less viscous. It is then piped to the surface.

High-pressure steam follows the path of least resistance, and a number of
unplanned steam blowouts have already occurred. In May 2006, a blowout
ejected rocks and light matter over about 300 m at Total E&P Canada’s Joslyn
Project. An accidental steam release at EnCana’s Christina Lake Project was
fortunately blocked by the surrounding bitumen and sand. “We need much
stronger steam injection monitoring and operating requirements to prevent
blowouts,” says Campbell.

Accidental steam releases point to the need to understand the geology of a
bitumen reservoir, as well as the changing underground temperatures and
pressures as steam is injected. Subtle changes below the surface will impact
the steam chamber’s development, so it’s critical to see why and where these
changes are occurring if an accidental steam release is to be avoided. The
need for groundwater monitoring and baseline data is critical.

“In early 2007,” says Campbell, “international water experts recommended to
the Government of Alberta that it establish high standards of monitoring and
governance of groundwater in intense development districts. In the oil sands
region, groundwater monitoring needs to be much more extensive.”

“Currently, oil prices are so high that companies are rushing to get their
projects on production. We have found that most of the test wells drilled
through the aquifer have not set surface casing deep enough to shield it
from contamination.” says Boucher. “We do not feel they or the government
has taken enough time to make sure resources like groundwater and the boreal
forest is adequately protected.”

Boucher’s nightmare is one of an underground blowout where the high-pressure
steam and oil emulsion contaminate northeastern Alberta’s vast freshwater
aquifer. “In my heart, I know this is going to eventually happen. It will
break through by way of a fracture in the ground, or through an undetected
deep channel cut, or by way of one of the hundreds of wells drilled through
this aquifer. We are going to pollute a water system that even industry
acknowledges as a source of ‘Perrier quality’ water.”

Boucher says the Métis Nation in Region One is taking an active role in
trying to balance industrial growth with protecting our environment. “As
water resources become increasingly scarce, this immense aquifer will be
critical to our future. Its contamination will be unacceptable to the people
of Alberta.”

For more information:

Rick Boucher, Vice-President, Métis Nation of Alberta, Region One: (780)
623-3050

Carolyn Campbell, Conservation Specialist, Alberta Wilderness Association:
(403) 283-2025

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