Ducks Just Tip of Toxic Tailings Iceberg

Op-ed - Feb. 17, 2009 - By Simon Dyer

Published in Metro (Feb. 17, 2009)

The recent decision by the governments of Canada and Alberta to charge Syncrude for the death of 500 waterfowl on a tailings pond confirms the seriousness of the environmental challenges facing the oilsands.

Sadly, the ducks are just one of a litany of growing environmental problems. In many ways, the heated debate about the magnitude of potential fines faced by Syncrude and ways to stop birds from landing in toxic waste is clouding a much more important issue - the absence of solutions to deal with the tailings ponds themselves.

Tailings ponds include leftover bitumen, diluents such as naphtha, and toxins including naphthenic acids, phenolic compounds and ammonia. The oilsands industry produces tailings at a staggering rate. Between the time you read this and Syncrude's court date March 25, oilsands companies will have produced another 2,952 Olympic-sized swimming pools of liquid waste. This means every day another 82 Olympic-sized pools of toxic tailings are created.

More alarmingly, a recent report using industry data calculated more than four swimming pools of toxic tailings leak from the ponds into groundwater and the Athabasca River every day. Government cannot or will not release actual seepage data.

Tailings lakes already cover 130 square kilometres of northern Alberta, an area larger than the City of Vancouver. These should not have been allowed to expand before industry demonstrated it could clean up the mess.

Last week, the Alberta Energy Resources and Conservation Board released a directive that acknowledged operators have failed to properly reclaim 40 years of toxic tailings waste. Time will tell if the days of voluntary management are over.

If Canada and Alberta are serious about dealing with this toxic liability, we need to prohibit the creation of new tailings ponds and halt new project approvals until companies with existing oilsands projects can demonstrate ways to extract bitumen without this harmful byproduct.

Government must decide if charging Syncrude is about creating the illusion of action for the benefit of U.S. President Barack Obama, or if they really want to reform the way oilsands are developed.

Shedding the dead ducks image and dirty oil tag will require serious changes, not just Band-Aid remedies.

Tags:  Alberta, Oilsands

Simon Dyer

Simon Dyer is the deputy executive director of the Pembina Institute. He is based in Edmonton.


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