Are the oilsands prepared for a worst-case scenario? Research assignment turns into wild goose chase

Blog - July 20, 2010 - By Nathan Lemphers

I recently went looking to see what kinds of plans were in place in case of an emergency involving 840 million cubic metres (equivalent to 330,000 Olympic-sized swimming pools) of toxic liquid tailings waste deposited by oil sands mines north of Fort McMurray. The problem is, instead of finding what I was looking for, I was sent on a wild goose chase, leading me to wonder: Does anyone know what happens if something goes wrong?

Increasingly, both investors and communities are demanding transparency around the environmental impacts and risks associated with energy projects — especially in the wake of the BP's Gulf oil disaster. Emergency preparedness plans, commonplace in most industries, are developed to outline exactly what would happen in a crisis.

So, with the concerns of communities downstream of the 170 square kilometres (an area larger than Vancouver) of toxic tailings lakes in mind, I attempted to find out who's in charge of the emergency preparedness plan for tailings lakes and what the plan is in the event of an emergency involving a tailings dam breach.

The wild goose chase

First stop: Alberta Environment, responsible for managing dam safety in the province. A representative explained that Alberta Environment does not own the information contained in such plans and that I should contact the oilsands operators.

So, that's what I did — I contacted Suncor Energy, Syncrude Canada and Shell Canada. But none of these companies would release their plans. 

Alberta Environment also directed me to the local municipality — surely, someone there would be able to provide the information since local residents and the local environment would be affected in the case of an emergency. I contacted the director for emergency services for the Municipality of Wood Buffalo, responsible for emergency planning for downstream communities like Fort McKay and Fort Chipewyan. I was told that the municipality does not own that information and I was redirected to speak with oilsands operators.

Why the runaround?

The bottom line is because the government considers the performance and emergency planning for tailings proprietary information, it is considered confidential and, therefore, is not accessible to the public. For this reason, the information cannot even be fully accessed through the Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act.

Why the secrecy?

Communities downstream of the oilsands are already skeptical about whether the Government of Alberta and oilsands operators are diligently managing the impacts and risks associated with oilsands development.

Remember, that just two weeks ago the Federal Committee charged with reporting on oilsands risks to water mysteriously shredded their final report, despite damning testimony about evidence of gaps in Canada's approach to regulation of water in the oilsands.

Tailings DamA lack of transparency around tailings management is only adding to the skepticism and concerns.

Water expert Dr. David Schindler said: "If any of those [tailings ponds] were ever to breach and discharge into the river, the world would forever forget about the Exxon Valdez." With the Athabasca and Mackenzie rivers likely to be impacted, as well as communities downstream,  transparency of tailings management documents is paramount.

Actions speak louder than words

The rights of community members and concerned individuals to access emergency preparedness plans and performance reports should trump private property rights. 

Alberta Premier Ed Stelmach's Council for Economic Strategy admitted last week: "It may take a dramatic gesture to convince a skeptical public to applaud Alberta as a responsible natural resource steward."

I agree, and a good start would be addressing some about the concerns of downstream communities by making tailings management information publicly accessible.

Learn more about risks to the Mackenzie Basin in our related fact sheet or report.

Nathan Lemphers
Nathan Lemphers

Nathan Lemphers was a senior policy analyst in the Pembina Institute's oilsands program, until 2013.


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