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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

Incredible photos of tar sands by Pulitzer Center journalists


Carol Linnitt | DeSmog Canada - April 9th 2014

Blog Post: Journalist Dan Grossman and photographer Alex MacLean are in the middle of their week-long tour of the Alberta oilsands. Their on-the-scene reporting is meant to bring greater public attention to the scale – and the stakes – of developing oil from the world’s largest deposit of carbon-intensive bitumen.

Alberta’s plan for Athabasca River ‘pathetic,’ not science-based


Bow Weber | Canadian Press - March 19th 2014

Press Clipping: Alberta's plan to protect the Athabasca River from the escalating pressure of oil sands development reveals how little the government understands about the environment it claims to protect, say prominent scientists and critics. "It's pretty pathetic," said David Schindler, a retired University of Alberta ecologist and a leading expert on fresh-water systems. "If you were to put this before a panel of international scientists, they would be incredulous."

Study draws attention to tailings seepage in the oil sands

Erin Flanagan | Pembina Institute - March 4th 2014

Blog Post: Last month, scientists from Environment Canada released a study citing research that estimated the rate at which tailings water is likely seeping from one lake (and into groundwater systems hydraulically connected to the Athabasca River). That rate to be 6.5 million litres per day. Lead author Richard Frank said, “This is the strongest indication to date that process water is reaching the river system.”

Study showing tailings ponds leakage demands oilsands slowdown: critics

Bob Weber | Canadian Press - February 25th 2014

Press Clipping: Environmentalists and opposition politicians say new research that indicates oilsands tailings are leaching into groundwater should convince the Alberta government to slow down development. Industry and government officials responding to the Environment Canada study say it isn't conclusive and more research is needed before action is taken, but the scientist behind the findings said he's confident in his work. "With some of the groundwater samples containing chemical profiles similar to tailings ponds, this is the strongest indication to date that process water is reaching the river system," said Richard Frank, lead author of the paper published in Environmental Science and Technology.

Oilsands study confirms tailings found in groundwater, river


February 20th 2014

Press Clipping: New federal research has confirmed that water from vast oilsands tailings ponds is leaching into groundwater and seeping into the Athabasca River. The Environment Canada study used new technology to actually fingerprint the mix of groundwater chemicals in the area. The tailings mix, which contains toxic chemicals, is found in groundwater around mining operations and beneath the Athabasca River.

Tar sands communities flee homes to escape emissions, panel told


Mike Hudema | Greenpeace Canada - February 4th 2014

Blog Post: As the Alberta government was celebrating the State Department analysis into the effects of the KeystoneXL tar sands pipeline, several Peace River residents were at a hearing talking about the tar sands emissions that they've been dealing with since 2011. Residents have watched as their cattle got sick, then as their family members did as well. The main source of the problem is believed to be emissions from a Baytex tar sands facility. But Shell, Husky, Murphy Oil, and Tervita operations (some of which are also tar sands facilities) also seem to be contributing to the worrisome situation.

Oilsands air pollutants underestimated, researchers find


February 3rd 2014

Press Clipping: The emission levels of some toxic air pollutants in the Alberta oilsands have been greatly underestimated, according to University of Toronto researchers. “When dealing with chemicals that have such great potential to harm people and animals, it is absolutely vital that we truly understand how, and how much they are being released into the environment,” said Abha Parajulee, lead author of a paper on oilsands pollution.

Redford the target of angry landowners at public hearing

Sheila Pratt | Edmonton Journal - January 30th 2014

Press Clipping: Residents worried about health effects of bitumen emissions directed their frustration at Premier Alison Redford’s government during a public inquiry here Tuesday. While Redford “is running around the world telling people there are few environmental impacts with oilsand development,” as she looks for new markets, some people in the Peace Country are forced to abandon their homes, Carmen Langer told the hearing. “She doesn’t understand the pain and suffering of the people of Sunrise County.”