STOP: Stop Tar Sands Operations Permanently

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Toxic Tailings

Posted by mhudema on July 11, 2008

Toxic tailings from the tar sands

Alberta Environmental Resources Conservation Board’s new directive worse than useless.

Dateline: Monday, July 07, 2008

by Ricardo Acuña for Vue Weekly

The Alberta Government, along with their friends in the oil industry, have recently embarked on a major campaign to educate Canadians and Americans about the fact that extraction of oil from Northern Alberta’s bituminous sands is actually an environmentally friendly and ecologically sound process.

This is no easy task. Especially given that the science, statistics and pictures reflecting what is happening in Northern Alberta tend to speak for themselves. From Syncrude’s dead ducks to tailings leaks into the Athabasca River to aerial pictures of the area, the giant tailings lakes attached to these operations have, of late, become one of the most visible manifestations of all that is wrong with bituminous sands projects and a political hot potato for both government and industry in terms of their “education” campaigns.

The real issue with tailings is that they are incredibly toxic and pose a significant threat to human life and the ecosystem in general.

Last week the Alberta Environmental Resources Conservation Board (ERCB) released a draft of a new directive which is ultimately meant to demonstrate that the government is serious about addressing this most visible of problems. Unfortunately, however, the only thing that the directive — entitled Tailings Performance Criteria and Requirements for Oil Sands Mining Schemes — shows is just how negligent the provincial government has been in terms of the environment over the last 40 years.

Tailings are a byproduct of the tar sands extraction process. As the oil is separated from the sand, what is left behind is a mix of sand, water, silt, clay, hydrocarbons and toxic chemicals. Because provincial legislation dictates that tar sands operations cannot discharge any materials into the environment, they must be stored on site. To date, this has meant that they are pumped into big containment sites where the coarser sands settles to the bottom and the fine particles settle into the water.

These containment sites are what we have come to know as “tailings ponds.” According to a recent report by the Pembina Institute, there are currently about 5.5 billion cubic metres of impounded tailings, with some of the lakes being as big as 13 square kilometres.

To date, the storage and management of tailings has been virtually unregulated and unmonitored by the provincial government. Despite the fact that some 2.0 m3 to 2.5 m3 are currently produced per barrel of bitumen, the government has relied entirely on the voluntary good will of industry in terms of what they do with that byproduct.

Every tar sands outfit in operation has been required to submit plans for reclamation of their operations site. Within those reclamation plans are plans for dealing with and handling tailings over the long term. For the most part these plans rely on two technologies: the creation of end pit lakes (which essentially means covering them up with a “reclaimed lake”), and turning them into consolidated tailings (tailings thickened by some agent which would make them transportable so they can be “integrated” into the landscape).

The problem with these proposed technologies is that after 40 years they still exist exclusively in the realm of the theoretical, and have not been proven anywhere to be viable or safe. In other words, there is no evidence anywhere that industry’s “plans” for tailings reclamation will actually work.

So now, after 500 dead ducks, after public outcry from around North America, after reports that tailings have been leaking into the Athabasca River all along and after getting their knuckles rapped by a joint federal-provincial review panel, the provincial government has decided that maybe relying entirely on industry to manage tailings on a voluntary basis may not be a good idea.

What last week’s ERCB draft directive does is set enforceable guidelines and performance measurements by which government can ensure that industry is actually making progress on their long-term tailings management plans. In other words, after 40 years the government has decided it has some responsibility for ensuring that industry does what it said it would do.

What the ERCB directive does not deal with, however, is the real problem with tailings in the tar sands. Whether they are being stored in tailings lakes, buried in end pit lakes or thickened and spread over the landscape, the real issue with tailings is that they are incredibly toxic and pose a significant threat to human life and the ecosystem in general.

The problem is not what form the tailings are in, but the fact that there are tailings at all. The ERCB directive forces industry to start working toward development and implementation of technology that is not proven. In the meantime, the industry continues to produce these toxic tailings at an alarming rate, with no guarantee that the human and environmental risk from these tailings will ever be eliminated.

Imagine if someone discovered that there were high levels of poison in the water coming out of our taps. Would you be okay with the government simply setting guidelines and timelines for the development of technology, which may or may not eventually remove the poison from our drinking water with the poisonous water continuing to flow in the interim?

Some analysts have referred to the ERCB’s move as a baby step in the right direction, but it is not. It is actually a huge step in the wrong direction. Until industry can show scientifically — and beyond a shadow of a doubt — that they have technology in place, which will make tailings safe over the long term, no new tailings should be allowed. If that means shutting production entirely, then so be it. There can be no greater motivator for industry to innovate and change their practices than the risk of permanently losing the golden goose.

Tailings are toxic and dangerous, and there’s currently no technology which can change that — why is government looking the other way while their production continues to increase? It’s time this government stopped making it so easy for industry to poison Albertans and destroy our landscape. It’s time they remembered their primary responsibility and started governing in the interest of Albertans, not Syncrude and Suncor.

Ricardo Acuña is Executive Director of the Parkland Institute, a non-partisan public policy research institute housed at the University of Alberta.


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