Tar Sands Solutions Network

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Air & Water Issues

The rapid expansion of the tar sands is creating a world-class pollution problem. Industry uses as much fresh water as a large Canadian city and almost none of it is returned to the natural environment. Ninety-five per cent of this water is so polluted it has to be stored in toxic sludge pits that cover 176 square kilometres, held back by two of the three largest dams on the planet. An estimated 11 million litres of toxic wastewater leaks into the Athabasca River every day.

Tar sands oil production also emits twice as much air pollution as conventional oil, which contributes to acid rain and emits significant amounts of heavy metals and other toxic pollutants to the region's lakes and rivers.

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Tar sands uses an immense amount of water and creates a massive pollution problem
Proposed Scale:
- 95% of fresh water used is not returned to the natural environment
- 11M litres of toxic tailings water leaks into the boreal forest every day
- Air quality limits were exceeded 1,500 times in 2007
Current Status:
Governments have failed to live up to promises or enforce regulations to manage pollution  

Producing a barrel of tar sands oil creates more than twice as much nitrogen oxides and sulphur dioxide emissions as a barrel of conventional oil. Every year, tar sands operations spew into the air more than 45,000 tonnes of nitrogen oxides, 115,000 tonnes of sulphur dioxide, and 74,000 tonnes of volatile organic compounds. According to Environment Canada, tar sands pollution exceeded Alberta’s already weak air quality objectives more than 1,500 times in 2007, 47 times more than in 2004.

Nitrogen oxides and sulphur dioxide are major contributors to acid rain, which acidify lakes and streams and damage trees and sensitive forest soils. Volatile organic compounds such as benzene are known carcinogens. When combined together, nitrogen oxides and volatile organic compounds react to form ground-level ozone, or smog, which contributes to climate change.

Many of these pollutants return to earth to pollute the region’s rivers and streams, and leaking tailings ponds are polluting groundwater reserves. Recent research indicates that tar sands pollutants considered toxic and/or carcinogenic are accumulating in surface and ground water downstream from tar sands development. One recent study found concentrations 2.5 to 23 times higher in lake sediments than they were 50 years ago. These pollutants are dangerous to human and animal health at very low concentrations.

The majority of the water used by the tar sands industry is taken from the Athabasca River, which flows into the Peace-Athabasca Delta, recognized as one of the most important wetlands in the world. Water licenses allow current and proposed tar sands projects to withdraw as much as 15 per cent of the Athabasca River’s water flow during its lowest flow periods. As climate change reduces the amount of water in the river during the winter, these massive water withdrawals will reduce the amount of fish habitat and significantly undermine the health of the river’s ecosystem.

As tar sands development expands, so, too, will pollution. Water withdrawals and pollution will inevitably increase to dangerous and unsustainable levels, poisoning what’s left of the ground and surface waters. Preventing the expansion of the tar sands, and eventually phasing this dirty source of energy out is the only way to ensure that impacts to air and water in the region do not continue to exceed safe thresholds.

Air & Water Issues Updates & Resources

Oilsands companies might be better off not restoring wetlands, U of A ecologist says

Sheila Pratt | Edmonton Journal - March 31st 2015

Press Clipping: The effort to restore wetlands in the oilsands is so weak it might be better abandoned, an ecologist told a water forum Friday at the University of Alberta. Companies are now trying to construct new wetlands on their mine leases, but these have fewer native plants, different chemistry and may in fact pose dangers to wildlife, said Kevin Timoney. Even if the companies are successful, birds, for instance, would be drawn to these constructed wetlands just a few hundred metres from an active mine with power lines and tailings ponds, and that’s not healthy, he said. “Wetland reclamation efforts have failed for years — we are seeing the development of a national sacrifice zone,” he said.

Science vs Spin: Dilbit sinks in the real world, but not in studies funded by oil industry

Justin Mikulka | DeSmog Blog - March 27th 2015

Press Clipping: “Once the oil started to sink, it made things a lot more difficult on our recovery.” Those were the words of Greg Powell of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency during his presentation on March 10th at the National Academy of Sciences conference on the Effects of Diluted Bitumen on the Environment. Powell was one of the people involved in the response and clean up of the Kalamazoo River tar sands dilbit spill in 2010 where an Enbridge pipeline cracked and spilled approximately one million gallons of diluted bitumen into the Kalamazoo River in Michigan.

There’s something really dirty going on in Canada that these celebrities want you to know about


March 20th 2015

Visual: One hundred celebrities, scientists, artists, elected officials, labor unions, progressive organizations, landowners, and climate activists have signed a letter for the president. In the Sierra Club’s most widely watched video ever, a bevy of celebrities make the case for rejecting Keystone XL and more business-as-usual dirty oil production.

Alberta’s greatly anticipated tar sands tailings ponds framework falls short


Jennifer Skene | NRDC - March 17th 2015

Blog Post: A new Tailings Management Framework released by the Government Alberta unfortunately enables industry to sidestep taking meaningful action on one of the most pressing environmental issues of tar sands development. For years, Alberta's political leaders have promised to finally address the harmful legacy of the toxic tar sands tailings problem. But this latest framework is not likely to compel industry action to clean up the tailings in a meaningful way, especially given its lack of meaningful enforcement mechanisms.

Government plan fails to protect lower Athabasca River when most needed

March 16th 2015

Blog Post: The lower Athabasca River will continue to be exposed to significant risks under the Surface Water Quantity Management Framework released today by the Government of Alberta. The long-overdue framework is intended to regulate water withdrawals by oilsands operators from the lower Athabasca River and achieves a number of objectives, but provides inadequate protection during the low-flow winter period, the river’s most sensitive time of the year. Instead, the plan gives precedence to water withdrawals of senior oilsands operations during these rare and sensitive low-flow periods.

NAFTA scrutiny of oilsands tailings ponds opposed by Canada

January 12th 2015

Press Clipping: Canada is trying to stop NAFTA's environmental watchdog from taking a closer look at the environmental effects of the huge tailings ponds produced by Alberta's oilsands, and it appears Mexico and the U.S. will go along with efforts to stop a formal investigation. "It was important for us know whether this was happening and whether environmental laws were being broken and whether the government is upholding those laws or ignoring them," said Dale Marshall of Environmental Defence, one of the groups that launched the complaint in 2010.

NAS to study spill cleanup for oil sands crude

Elana Schor | Politico - December 4th 2014

Press Clipping: The National Academy of Sciences on Wednesday began an investigation that could answer one of the biggest questions dogging the Keystone XL pipeline: whether the heavy Canadian oil it would carry is harder to clean up in a spill than conventional crude. At the heart of the NAS investigation is the contention that Canadian oil sands are more likely than other crude oils to sink below the surface of certain marine environments.

Study confirms oilsands tailings ponds emit pollutants into the air


Bob Weber | Canadian Press - November 28th 2014

Press Clipping: New federal government research has confirmed that oilsands tailings ponds are releasing toxic and potentially cancer-causing chemicals into the air. And Environment Canada scientist Elisabeth Galarneau said her study — the first using actual, in-the-field measurements — agrees with earlier research that suggests the amount of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons emitted by the industry has been dramatically underestimated.