Alberta’s dirty water hazard -

Alberta’s dirty water hazard

Getting rid of oil-sands tailings ponds is easier said than done


Jeff McIntosh/CP

Alberta Premier Ed Stelmach marked Earth Day by talking tough about the oil sands. He called on oil companies to eliminate, within a “few years,” the murky man-made lakes, or tailings ponds, that hold contaminated water (leftover bitumen, sand and various heavy metals) from the extraction process. The vast ponds, which collectively cover about 130 square kilometres—bigger than the city of Vancouver—have become a focal point for environmentalists and are the subject of a lawsuit after 1,600 ducks died on one of Syncrude’s ponds two years ago.

But Stelmach’s vision was overshadowed the following day when Alberta’s energy regulator approved tailings-pond plans for two oil sands projects, including one that has yet to be built. While the approvals were granted in accordance with new guidelines that require ponds to be treated and drained more quickly so they can be planted with vegetation, it’s still a far cry from having no ponds whatsoever—a goal the industry says will likely require significant investments in new technologies.

One of the plans approved by the Energy Resources Conservation Board is for the yet-to-be-sanctioned Fort Hills project to be operated by Suncor, UTS Energy and Teck Resources. It includes a 322-million-cubic-metre pond that will operate for 22 years. The others relate to ponds operated by Syncrude that are scheduled to be replaced with a “trafficable surface” (hard enough to walk or drive vehicles on) between 2014 and 2037.

Meanwhile, the pressure on producers continues to ratchet up. Environmental groups recently launched a complaint under NAFTA, arguing Canada has failed to enforce anti-pollution rules for tailings ponds. But with Alberta’s energy watchdog reviewing tailings-pond plans for several other projects, it’s unlikely that the grey lakes of northern Alberta will be disappearing anytime soon.

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Alberta’s dirty water hazard

  1. There is one initiative under way that does stand a chance at halting the expansion of the tar sands industries. The Beaver Lake Cree Nation's legal action – suing the Alberta and federal governments – can stop the expansion because the lawsuit is demanding a court declaration that the permits issued are unconstitutional. The legal action. launched in 2008, cites 17,000 infringements by oil companies of the BLCN's constitutionally protected treaty rights to hunt, trap and fish on their ancestral lands and seeks injunctions against new developments. The legal action is brave, and costly, but Chief Al Lameman is determined to see the promises made by Canada and Alberta are kept. "A legal action is the only way to make our voices heard," he is quoted as saying in the New Internationalist. And the legal action has huge implications for Shell, BP, ExxonMobil, ConocoPhillips and Total, all of which have actual or planned developments within the Beaver Lake Cree's ancestral lands. If successful, all new tar sands projects could be brought to a halt. And Canada's Indigenous People will be the ones that rescue Canada from international embarrassment and rescue all the people on the planet from the worst effects of tar sands exploitation. There is more information about the legal action on RAVEN (Respecting Aboriginal Values & Environmental Needs) web site –

  2. Nothing will be done about the oil sands until it's far too late.
    Albertans view them as a source pride, but I have a feeling they won't be as happy about them in the future when their water reserves will be considerably diminished because of them (people still don't seem to understand how much water it takes to get the oil from the tar sands). And you can be sure people won't be happy that the water that will be left will be contaminated by the ponds.

  3. Learn from BP in the Gulf of Mexico people. Oil companies and especially miner/smelter Teck Resources are not watching out for you, for your water resources, your health, the future of your area you live in being livable, your children, your grandchildren, Nations people or Canadians. You are in the way of their profit taking if you complain or request constraints on their actions. Move over and eventually move out.