Alberta gov't rejects reports of tailings pond leak
A portion of the Shell Albian Sands oilsands mine is seen from an overlook near Fort McMurray, Alta., Wednesday, July 9, 2008. (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jeff McIntosh)
EDMONTON - Alberta's environment minister has dismissed reports that a three-sided oilsands tailings pond is leaking toxins into surrounding land and water.
"While we are following up on the allegations, initial reports indicate that there is no release of water from this pond," Rob Renner told the legislature Monday during question period.
"The design of this pond is working as it was appropriately designed to work -- and if there is any issue, we will be dealing with it."
Renner was responding to reports of water leaking out of the tailings pond at Canadian Natural Resources' (TSX:CNQ) Horizon operation, about 70 km northwest of Fort McMurray, near the First Nations community of Fort McKay.
The tailings ponds collect leftover bitumen, clay and heavy metals from the oilsands refining process.
Most are contained using manmade barriers. The Horizon one, however, is contained on its western edge by a natural barrier of sloping clay. Critics charge it is oozing into nearby wilderness and is accessible to wildlife.
Alberta's Energy Resources Conservation Board, the arms-length industry regulator, signed off on the design six years ago.
Renner and Energy Minister Ron Liepert told the legislature that the board regularly checks up on the tailings ponds and was at the Horizon site two weeks ago and found everything operating properly. Renner said another team has since been sent up just to make sure.
Opposition critics said even if the pond is sound, using natural barriers to contain toxic effluvia is bad business.
"First it was ducks put at risk by toxic tailings soup, and now animals are reportedly free to walk into this three-walled pool. How could this government approve such a seemingly nonsensical way of containing liquid toxic sludge?" NDP critic Rachel Notley asked the House.
But Renner said the approved plan appears to be working.
"It is built against a natural wall," said Renner. "There is no indication at this point that that natural wall is working any differently from an artificial one."
The board, in a news release, confirmed the findings.
"The tailings pond and the stream lie at the bottom of a natural depression, and all the water in the area flows into the pond, not out of it," said the release.
But Melina Laboucan-Massimo of the environmental activist group Greenpeace said the government is dangerously lackadaisical.
"Animals are being poisoned because the company wasn't even required to put something as paltry as a fence up," said Laboucan-Massimo.
The Alberta government has been fighting an ongoing public relations battle over the tailings ponds. While the ponds form a small part of the overall oilsands operations, the great inland lakes of waste have become international symbols of the environmental price.
Last month, 350 ducks landed on area tailings ponds, became trapped and had to be killed. That came just days after energy giant Syncrude agreed in court to $3 million in penalties for allowing 1,600 ducks to die on its ponds in 2008.
Two panels of scientists -- one federal and the other provincial -- are examining the water quality in the area after ecologist David Schindler reported the water in the region was being polluted at a much greater rate greater than industry figures. He also showed reporters pictures of fish with tumours or deformed body parts.
Provincial officials have escorted European and American politicians to the oilsands area amid concerns other jurisdictions are considering financial or trade sanctions on oilsands product.
In September, Premier Ed Stelmach met with Hollywood blockbuster director James Cameron.
Cameron, an enviro activist, also toured the oilsands and said help must come immediately for the First Nations communities whose members live downstream of the oilsands and who say they are getting sick and getting cancer from their drinking water.
Alberta Liberal critic Laurie Blakeman told the legislature that if the three-walled pond is any indication, the government plan is to deflect responsibility to the regulator and vice versa.
"No one is around to take responsibility when fish grow tumours, wildlife drink toxic sludge or cancer rates in First Nations people in the area rise," said Blakeman.
"Why does this government have such weak standards?"