Clearing the Waters on Tar Sands Tailings Waste

Tar Sands Tailings Pond credit David Dodge

It is depressing that a topic as vast as 50 square miles of tar sands oil tailings waste lagoons from strip-mining the Boreal forest should be even murkier than the toxic waters stored in them. In order to clear the waters on the actual harm and impacts of tar sands tailings ponds, today, NRDC joined Environmental Defence Canada and several community members from Alberta, Saskatchewan and the Northwest Territories in a petition to the North American Commission on Environmental Cooperation (CEC). For a long time, it has been clear that the Canadian government is failing to enforce the anti-pollution provisions of its federal Fisheries Act by allowing the tar sands tailings waste ponds to leak pollution into both surface waters and groundwater. The Alberta and Canadian governments are simply not taking enforcement action. The CEC has the power to start an investigation to help us get to the bottom of what is really going on in the interconnected watersheds reaching from Alberta to the Arctic. Specifically, the submission asks the CEC to prepare a factual record of the allegation that Canada is not enforcing its Fisheries Act against tar sands tailings pond water pollution.

Communities in the watersheds potentially impacted by leaks from tar sands tailings ponds have long been concerned. John Rigney lives downstream from the Alberta tar sands mines in the community of Ft. Chipewyan on Lake Athabasca. He said, “I live downstream from the tailings ponds, and not a day goes by that I don’t worry about what they are doing to the rivers and lakes where I hunt, fish and live. When will the boosters of the tar sands learn that you can’t drink oil?”

Canada keeps saying it wants better environmental management in the tar sands, yet it is failing to enforce laws already on the books that could make this happen. If Canada is sincere and wants to deal with tar sands pollution, it should put the focus and resources it currently dedicates to green-washing the tar sands into enforcing its existing laws at home to limit some of the worst pollution impacts. Instead, Canada is pushing tar sands oil in the United States without disclosing the enormous potential for damage to North American waters and without disclosing that lack of enforcement of environmental laws amounts to an unfair subsidy of tar sands oil production.

The citizens’ submission documents cases where contaminated tailings leakage has reached surface waters in addition to the ongoing massive and increasing leakage from un-lined tar sands tailings ponds into the region’s groundwater. The Fisheries Act prohibits the discharge of substances harmful to fish, yet the federal government has never prosecuted documented infractions nor has it enacted regulations that would permit the discharge.

The tar sands tailings ponds currently contain around 190 billion gallons of waste water from strip-mining the Boreal forest for the bitumen that is eventually turned into fuels for our cars, trucks and airplanes. In melting the bitumen from the soil, tar sands producers are left with water mixed with naphthenic acids, ammonia, benzene, cyanide, oil and grease, phenols, toluene, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, arsenic, copper and iron. None of these are nice substances for fish or humans. Environmental Defence Canada estimates that the tailings ponds already leak 1 billion gallons each year, with projections that this figure could reach over 6.6 billion gallons within a decade should proposed projects go ahead. There are documented cases of contaminated tailings substances reaching or projected to reach surface waters in Jackpine Creek (from Shell), Beaver Creek (from Syncrude), McLean Creek (from Suncor) and the Athabasca River (from Suncor).

Under subsection 36(3) of the Canadian federal Fisheries Act, you may not put “deleterious substances” into waters frequented by fish or any place where they could enter waters frequented by fish. The tar sands tailings ponds clearly fit this description and yet the Canadian government is not enforcing the law.

Hopefully the CEC will do what it was set up to do: ensure that the environmental laws of Canada, the United States and Mexico are fairly enforced to avoid unfair trade situations and to protect the public health and environment. We need to have some public clarity around the lack of enforcement of Canada’s laws that require cleaning up and shutting down tar sands tailings ponds, but instead are lying unused and silent in the face of devastating pollution.