Cleaning Up Dirty Oil

Suncor leaks highlight risks to Athabasca River


Last week, Suncor gushed an unknown quantity of potentially toxic wastewater into the Athabasca River. For 10 hours. If you think that’s bad, Suncor also released 2,200 barrels of toxic wastewater into the Athabasca River two years ago from the same site, which is located upstream from the communities of Fort Mackay and Fort Chipewyan. For three days.

According to the Globe and Mail, Suncor never bothered to issue a press release regarding the 2011 incident, which killed fish in a monthly experiment used to test for toxicity. The Fort McKay First Nation just downstream from Suncor said it has tried to get details from the Alberta government about which chemicals were released, but the data “hasn’t materialized,” said Daniel Stuckless, manager of environmental and regulatory affairs for Fort Mackay.

Two years later, the Alberta government has finally (and belatedly) made public some of the details of the 2011 spill and issued an enforcement order requiring Suncor to clean up its act. That’s right, two years later.

The government claims the enforcement order is not related to last week’s release of polluted water from the same site, but given lack of transparency regarding the first leak, it’s tough to take them seriously. The government has released no information about how much pollution was released in the latest spill, or how toxic it was. No one even has seen a photo of the broken and leaking pipe, which had frozen.

Eleven organizations representing environmental, First Nations and landowner associations sent a letter to the Alberta government last Wednesday, demanding to know more about the leak “so Albertans can judge for themselves the impact of this spill.”

“This is all information that Suncor and the Alberta government should know and be immediate public knowledge,” read the letter, addressed to Alberta Environment Minister Diana McQueen, “but we remain in the dark.”

The Alberta government promised to respond to the letter immediately, but so far, no additional details have been made public.

Meanwhile, Imperial Oil soon will begin operation of its Kearl mine that will eventually produce 345,000 barrels of tar sands oil per day, in the absence of a promise to ensure the protection of the Athabasca River, the latest in a series of broken promises by the Alberta provincial and federal Canadian government to protect the critical watershed that surrounds the tar sands region.

The Kearl mine was approved in 2007 with the specific understanding, according to the decision approving the mine, that measures to protect the river would be implemented.  These measures were to include a water management framework that protects river flows from excessive tar sands water withdrawals.  Today, a key element of that framework – an ecological base flow – has not been established and there are no measures in place to ensure that tar sands operators stop withdrawals from the river especially during low flows.

“It is unacceptable that in nearly six years, there are still no measures in place to protect the Athabasca River from massive water diversions that leave the river dry,” wrote Danielle Droitsch, director of NRDC’s Canada Project from Washington, D.C.  “The Alberta government has again failed to establish critical  environmental safeguards.  Instead, the provincial and federal government continue to mislead the public with false information claiming the existing Athabasca River Water Management Framework sets mandatory limits on withdrawals.”

According to the Pembina Institute, the Joint Review Panel recommended that the Kearl mine (KOS) was in the public interest as long as rules were introduced that would halt river withdrawals during low flow periods. The decision report states that “The Joint Panel finds that the KOS Project is in the public interest for the reasons set out in this report. The Joint Panel concludes that the project is not likely to result in significant adverse environmental effects, provided that the recommendations and mitigation measures proposed by the Joint Panel are implemented.”

Those specific recommendations included that, “Phase II of the Water Management Framework be implemented by January 1, 2011, in keeping with the stated commitments of the governments of Alberta and Canada,” and that the Department of Fisheries and Oceans and Alberta Environment “incorporate an ecological base flow into the final Water Management Framework for the Athabasca River.”

“In the circular reasoning that has become common in oilsands decision-making,” wrote the Pembina Institute’s Director of Oil Sands Jennifer Grant, “the Panel based its recommendation that the project be approved on the assumption that the rules would be strengthened, rather than on the likely impacts of the project under existing regulations.”

Protecting the Athabasca River is not the only promise that remains unfulfilled. Increasing greenhouse gas emissions, growing tailings volumes, and the failure to protect caribou also undermine the entire industry’s efforts to convince the public that the tar sands are being developed in a clean and responsible manner.

“We still are failing to see the changes required to back [these claims] up,” wrote Grant. “Six long years have passed since the Joint Panel recommended that a zero-withdrawal low-flow limit must be implemented to protect the Athabasca River. Proceeding with new oilsands projects in the absence of this limit is simply unacceptable, and threatens the credibility of Alberta and Canada’s oilsands regulatory process.”

This legacy of broken promises to establish strict measures to address the growing and negative impacts on the water resources of the tar sands region, Droitsch maintains, deserves more attention and scrutiny particularly as the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline is being reviewed by the U.S. State Department.

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