Canada: What politicians are hiding about the tar sands

July 31, 2010
A shelved report suggests the Canadian government has managed its mandate in the tar sands as irresponsibly as the US Mineral Ma

Canwest News Service reported on July 6 that the Canadian parliament’s Standing Committee on Environment and Sustainable Development had, at a secret June 17 meeting, abruptly cancelled a big report on the Alberta tar sands oil mining project and its impacts on water. The parliamentarians even destroyed draft copies of their final report.

After listening to testimony from scientists, bureaucrats, lobbyists, aboriginal chiefs and environmental groups, the committee dropped the whole affair like a bucket of tar. The Alberta provincial government refused to testify.

Killing reports paid for by Canadian taxpayers on a $200 billion development is not what one associates with a “responsible energy producer”, but there you have it.

Fortunately, civilians can do what politicians can’t and read through 300 pages of evidence. The evidence all points to one embarrassing conclusion: Ottawa has managed its mandate in the tar sands as irresponsibly as the US Mineral Management Services oversaw the safety of deep sea drilling in the Gulf.

Let’s begin with the sorry testimony of federal regulators. They all agreed that Environment Canada has responsibilities in the tar sands under the Canadian Environmental Protection Act, the Species at Risk Act, the Migratory Bird Convention and the Fisheries Act.

However, despite a clear mandate to protect fish from tar sands pollutants, Environment Canada has completed just one fish study.

Fred Wrona, Environment Canada’s acting director general for water science and technology, admitted that a 2003 study found that oil-sand pollutants did indeed poison wild fish. “Beyond that, we have actually done no additional in-field studies looking at fish health effects.”

Ian Matheson, director general of the Habitat Management Directorate at Fisheries and Oceans said: “I guess we know more than we used to and not as much as we want to [about the hydrogeology of the region]. There’s a lot to be learned yet.”

Cynthia Wright, acting assistant deputy minister of Environmental Stewardship, explained that Environment Canada was not involved in the design of tailing ponds holding 6 billion barrels of toxic mining waste that cover 170km² along the Athabasca River — because the ponds don’t contain fish. Wright also claimed the ponds don’t leak.

But two University of Waterloo scientists gave evidence proving that Environment Canada was out to lunch. James Barker, earth science professor at the University of Waterloo, testified that “seepage of process affected water is occurring from [Suncor’s] Tar Island dike into the sediments of the Athabasca River” at a rate of 67 litres per second.

Moreover, the risk of more toxic seepage from the expanding tailing ponds into groundwater will escalate as mining projects increase bitumen production.

“Newer oil sands tailings operations are forced really by geography to be located closer to or on top of sandy aquifers ... the risk of local groundwater contamination is fairly high”, Barker said.

George Dixon, an expert on toxins created by bitumen mining, also testified that he knew of at least two leaks from the tailing ponds into groundwater. He said the availability and accessibility of water information remain a critical concern for scientists: “I’ve been working there for 15 years… and I have difficulty pulling data together.”

“It’s a discomfort in that there are probably more questions that need to be asked than we’re fully drawing our attention to at the present time”, he added.

Although industry spokespeople claim, with the earnestness of BP executives, that city-scaled water withdrawals from the Athabasca River for bitumen processing are safely managed, committee witnesses gave a different story.

William Donahue, an Alberta research scientist and lawyer, characterised the controversial Lower Athabasca River Management Framework as inadequate for the job.

The framework failed to incorporate a predicted 50% decline in water flows in the river basin due to climate change.

The federal and provincial designers of the framework, “arbitrarily decided that 90% of the time, there would be no ecological effect and no need to limit flow extractions”.

By 2020, mining companies will either have to use 50% less water or find it elsewhere warned Donahue.

Arlene Kwasniak, professor of law at the University of Calgary, pointed out that the voluntary agreement, which directs companies to suck out less water during low river flows to save the fish, is probably unenforceable under Alberta’s Water Act.

“There is nothing that would require compliance, nor is there anything under predecessor legislation … If we’re going to protect the river, we’re going to have to have some effective legislated control.” But it doesn’t exist. Even though industry has now dug up 80,000 hectares of critical peatlands and wetlands, Alberta still has no wetland policy either.

Contrary to Environment Canada’s presentations, respected water ecologist David Schindler told the committee that the project was directly polluting the Athabasca River.

In particular, industry emissions were now depositing substantial volumes of bitumen, heavy metals and fish-killing hydrocarbons on the landscape which then run-off into the river.

After his appearance, Schindler published a peer-reviewed paper in the prestigious Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences showing that air pollution alone created the equivalent of an annual 5,000-barrel oil spill on the Athabasca River.

Schindler also told the committee that the federal government used to monitor the river but then turned it over to Alberta which “turned a lot of it over to industry itself. As a result we have a database that’s not available to independent scientists to use.”

Industry claims that in situ projects, which steam bitumen out of the ground, will be more water friendly than mining. But experts warned that the steam plants could impact a region the size of Florida by withdrawing almost as much water from the ground as the mines were now taking from the Athabasca River.

Some unmapped underground aquifers in the region may even extend as far away as the Northwest Territories and Manitoba.

James Bruce, an acclaimed climate scientist and former director of Environment Canada’s now defunct Inland Waters Directorate, testified that reports by the Alberta Research Council and the Council of Canadian Academies concluded that in situ projects have “gone ahead with a completely inadequate understanding of the groundwater regime in the area and they are having significant impacts on water … We considered it a pretty unsustainable situation.”

Alfonso Rivera, manager of Natural Resources Groundwater Mapping Program, confirmed the accuracy of Bruce’s testimony. Asked if the government of Canada had studied the impact of the tar sands on groundwater Rivera replied: “The short answer is no. We are not able to provide facts.”

In fact, the government did not even know “the sustainable safe yield” for Athabasca aquifers. Nor did they know where or what contaminants might be transported by aquifers or how aquifers connected with surface water in the region.

David Boerner, an administrator with the Geological Survey of Canada, explained that Canada had only mapped 12 of 30 critical aquifers in the country and that “lack of information is the real problem”.

People living downstream from the project (more than 40,000 people) bitterly testified that the federal government had repeatedly neglected its duties.

Chief Bill Erasmus, regional chief of the Assembly of First Nations for the Northwest Territories, called for an immediate halt to tar sands expansion until the government prepared emergency plans in case of catastrophic breaches in some 20 tailing ponds and called for a dry tailing process and a 10-year plan to immediately clean up the 6 billion barrels of mining waste in the region.

Michael Miltenberger, environment and natural resources minister for the Northwest Territories, explained the federal government had abandoned the Mackenzie River Basin Transboundary Waters Master Agreement.

After 25 years of negotiations, the federal government, four provinces and two territories finally agreed to protect the world’s third largest watershed in 1997. But ever since the world’s largest energy project started to fill up Ottawa coffers, the federal government has ignored the agreement.

Miltenberger asked why the transboundary board, with an annual budget of $250,000, was sitting “almost in neutral” and hadn’t met for a decade?

“Our futures and fates are inextricably linked in the Mackenzie River Basin and we have to recognise that … there’s no national water strategy that allows the federal government to play a clear leadership role.”

Chief Jim Boucher of the Fort McKay First Nation said: “Oil sands development has proceeded on an ad hoc, project-by-project basis within a fiscal and environmental regulatory framework that is seriously out of date.

Lacking a coherent and overall plan and strategy, there is only an ineffective, reactive, piecemeal approach to environmental issues such as water management.”

Boucher’s people live in the middle of four mining projects

So there you have it: some of the evidence that the federal government didn’t want to share with the world.

Linda Duncan, a National Democratic Party MP who served on the querulous committee studying water and bitumen, has said she will soon write her own report, as has Liberal MP Francis Scarpaleggia, vice chair of the committee.

According to Duncan: “The federal government has failed to properly regulate the oil sands and in so doing they’ve put the resource at risk.”

[Abridged from The Tyee. Andrew Nikiforuk is the author of the award-winning book Tar Sands: Dirty Oil and The Future of a Continent.]

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