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Oilsands penalties dwarfed by library fines

Posted by mhudema on July 2, 2008

Mike De Souza
Canwest News Service

As a provincial regulator moves ahead with new enforcement tools to crack down on waste from Alberta’s oilsands sector, new statistics have revealed that a majority of projects faced no fines or prosecution in recent years under environmental protection legislation.

The data, compiled through an analysis of quarterly provincial reports and decisions made by the federal and provincial governments, revealed that only one company was fined under environmental protection legislation in 2006 and 2007.

Meanwhile, the federal government did not lay a single charge under the Fisheries Act against any oilsands company operating between 1988 and 2005.

“This is an industry that’s spewing 1.8 billion litres of toxic waste in tailings ponds every day, so looking at this and realizing the scale of it, it was really quite alarming,” said Gillian McEachern, a senior campaigner at ForestEthics, an environmental group that conducted the analysis.

“It really points to the need for better federal oversight over what’s happening, stronger regulations and good monitoring and enforcement of those regulations.”

McEachern said the total amount of fines in 2006 added up to $249,000. By comparison, she said library fines in Alberta’s two largest cities, Calgary and Edmonton, totalled more than $4 million for the same year.

“Alberta seems to be doing a good job at protecting its library books, (but) it’s not doing a very good job at protecting the environment,” she said.

Industry and government officials said the numbers were misleading because they didn’t include other aspects of regulations, such as enforcement orders that require companies to prevent or stop harmful pollution.

“The fines itself, I don’t think, would be indicative of what’s going on out there,” said Greg Stringham, vice-president of the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers. “The (activities) that actually end up (getting) fines, I think, are ones that cannot be resolved through all of the other kinds of compliance measures that are put in place before you get to the fines.”

An official for the Alberta Energy Resources Conservation Board confirmed that it can issue orders for companies to take preventive steps, costing the industry millions of dollars. But the provincial regulatory body, which announced a new crackdown last week on management of tailings ponds in the oilsands, also believes that some companies aren’t meeting all of their targets.

“The goal is to get clarity in terms of exactly what they’re targets for dealing with tailings ponds are and then clear consequences if those targets are not met,” said a board spokesman Davis Sheremata.

A spokesperson from Alberta Environment said that it investigates regulatory violations for up to two years before deciding whether to take court action. The department is still investigating the recent deaths of about 500 ducks on a tailings pond from earlier this year.

The federal government said it also believes that it’s more important to take action before projects begin through comprehensive assessments and research from various departments and stakeholders.

“While there have been no charges laid regarding oilsands projects from 1998 to the present, we believe that prevention and mitigation of environmental impacts before work begins is far better than having to intervene after work has started,” Lawrence Swift, a spokesman for the Fisheries Department, said in an e-mail.

© Canwest News Service 2008
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