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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Overview:
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

The unsolved mysteries of oilsands environmental monitoring

Andrew Read | Pembina Institute - October 14th 2014

Blog Post: Running a comprehensive monitoring program for the oilsands industry is very challenging — especially considering how huge the industry is already. Oilsands development currently produces 61 million tonnes of greenhouse gas pollution, consumes 185 billion litres of freshwater annually and has directly transformed more land area than the entire city of Calgary. And yet key questions that underpin the overall effectiveness of this environmental monitoring system have yet to be answered or fully addressed.

Oil and gas production can create ‘extreme’ ozone pollution

Margaret Munro | Canada.com - October 2nd 2014

Press Clipping: A recent study finds that emissions wafting out of oil and gas operations can trigger “extreme” ozone pollution events that rival those seen in congested cities. Extraordinary levels of ozone, which can exacerbate asthma and other respiratory problems, have been seen in rural areas of Utah and Wyoming. Scientists say the same phenomena may also be occurring near oil operations in Canada, but Environment Canada has not confirmed whether it monitors ozone emissions near the tar sands.

Huge ponds hold tar sands sludge, and great risks

Danielle Droitsch | NRDC - August 27th 2014

Blog Post: On August 4, 2014, the catastrophic failure of a mining company's dam in British Columbia, Canada, released over 2.5 billion gallons of contaminated water from a containment pond into the upper Fraser River watershed. Only a few hundred miles east in Alberta, at least half a dozen dams containing wastewater from the tar sands industry hold more than 100 times the volume of the BC release and cover more than 43,000 acres of Canada's boreal forest. And yet, Canadian authorities offer virtually no public information about the safety of these tailings dams, which already leak millions of gallons of wastewater every day.

Environmentalists want stronger action to reduce oilsands air pollution

Feature

Sheila Pratt | Edmonton Journal - August 18th 2014

Press Clipping: The Pembina Institute, an environmental research body, disputed the government and industry view that a level three trigger is “a long way from” the legal limit for either pollutant. “It’s a trigger for action to reduce emission, not a trigger for more investigation,” said Amin Asadollahi, program director of the oilsands for Pembina. “They are not enforcing their own rules.”

Declining air quality in the tar sands region: Is the government responding?

Danielle Droitsch | NRDC - August 14th 2014

Blog Post: A new report released by the Alberta government reveals a concerning trend with declining air pollution as a result of tar sands operations. While the report itself was just released, the air pollution information in the report dates back in 2012 -- and there appears to be a total lack of a response by the Alberta government to this problem.

Oil sands air pollution on the rise

Feature

Editors | Tar Sands Solutions Network - August 14th 2014

Blog Post: A new Government of Alberta air quality report confirms what many environmentalists, First Nations and local residents have long feared: air pollution is on the rise in the tar sands region, and at least two pollutants have excedded air quality triggers in northeastern Alberta. “Although many of these air quality triggers were exceeded 18 months ago, the government has proposed no corrective actions to reduce air pollution," said Amin Asadollahi, oilsands program director at the Pembina Institute. "Alberta’s lack of urgency in addressing these air quality issues is concerning.

Sign the petition to Suncor Energy

July 22nd 2014

Visual: Suncor is spending millions on a high profile public relations blitz to convince Canadians it cares about the environment. But we know Suncor is lobbying to get exempted from new water regulations and so it can take as much fresh water from the Athabasca River as it wants -- and then dump its toxic tailings water right into the Athabasca River. Tell Suncor you support absolute limits on water withdrawals and a ban on waste water dumping.