STOP: Stop Tar Sands Operations Permanently

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Tip of Tar Sands Iceberg – Probes grow to 13 in tar sands

Posted by mhudema on May 26, 2008

Oilsand probes grow to 13
Jason Fekete
Calgary Herald

The Alberta government finds itself knee-deep in more than a dozen oilsands-related investigations — including leaks, regulatory breaches and potential health problems — sparking further questions about the ecological costs to tap the resource.

The investigations come as the Stelmach Tories have launched a $25-million, three-year “Branding Alberta” campaign partly aimed at selling the oilsands as environmentally sustainable.

But less than a month after about 500 ducks died on a toxic tailings pond north of Fort McMurray, the provincial government and the oilpatch are facing new questions about one million litres of wastewater contaminated with oil and grease that leaked into the Athabasca River last fall.

“There’s this growing confidence gap between the public and the government,” Liberal environment critic David Swann said Friday. “This has been a government that’s been hands-off.”

Alberta Health and Health Canada are investigating reports of unusually high cancer rates in Fort Chipewyan, an aboriginal community downstream of oilsands projects.

Alberta Environment itself has 13 open investigations related to the oilsands. Three of those involve toxic tailings ponds, of which two are investigations into poor air quality, with the other case being the dead ducks.

The remaining 10 investigations are a variety of contraventions of project approvals, such as stack emissions exceeding what’s permitted, according to Alberta Environment officials. No other details were provided.

“The cumulative effects are catching up with us,” argued Marlo Raynolds, executive director of the Pembina Institute, an Alberta-based environmental research group.

“The tarsands are quickly becoming the black stain of Canada. . . . It’s becoming an environmental disaster.”

Swann skewered the government this week in question period over an incident last September where wastewater containing oil and grease from a Suncor oilsands facility was released into the Athabasca River, producing a sheen on the water.

Citing a Suncor presentation to Fort Chipewyan residents, Swann said effluent also was released into the Athabasca River in 2003.

He argued the incidents contradict assurances delivered in the legislature by Environment Minister Rob Renner, who said “there is no evidence” the Athabasca River has been compromised because of of leaching, leaking or emissions from tailings ponds.

While the Suncor leak wasn’t from a tailings pond, but other industrial water, Swann insisted Renner has misled Albertans.

The environment minister this week acknowledged there’s bound to be some spills.

“I’m sure that there have been incidents from time to time when there may have been an opportunity for hydrocarbons to enter the river,” Renner said Thursday in question period.

Swann, a Calgary doctor and Liberal MLA, maintained that residents of Fort Chipewyan weren’t told their drinking water was potentially contaminated until early May, when Suncor delivered a presentation to the community.

However, officials with Suncor disputed those claims Friday, insisting community leaders and the government were notified the day of the incident.

While one million litres of wastewater was released into the river, the volume only contained approximately two barrels of grease and oil and didn’t produce any “significant impact” to water quality or human health, said Suncor Energy spokesman Brad Bellows.

“It should not have happened. We exceeded regulations,” Bellows said. “There is no question our operations have an impact on the environment and there’s a lot of community concern about that, especially as it pertains to water.”

The government is also participating in a probe — with Health Canada and residents of the Fort Chipewyan area — into claims of unusually high rates of blood, colon, bile-duct and liver cancer downstream of the oilsands.

The Alberta Cancer Board hopes to complete its review by the fall.

“Right from the beginning, everybody was involved and concerned,” said Lee Elliott, spokeswoman for the cancer board. “We brought the group together last fall to . . . move this process along quickly.”

The environmental and health-related incidents from the oilsands will no doubt make the Stelmach government’s public relations campaign a tougher sell in Canada and south of the border, where there’s growing opposition to Alberta’s “dirty oil.”

But successfully marketing the oilsands in the United States as environmentally sustainable will largely depend on how quickly and aggressively government responds to unflattering incidents associated with extracting the resource, argued a Canada-U.S. policy expert.

“As long as they look like they’re dealing with it, it is a manageable bit of bad news,” said Chris Sands, a senior fellow at the Washington-based Hudson Institute. “It’s the nature of the commodity — we need it so badly. We’re going to have to make a few unsavoury decisions.”

© The Calgary Herald 2008

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