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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

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.

Sins of omission: Who’s looking out for the environment?

Josh Wingrove | Globe and Mail - November 18th 2014

Press Clipping: Oil sands production has surged but the resource’s environmental regulation has remained dubious. Provincial and federal governments have reaped the windfalls of the boom with only sporadic, often ambivalent attention to its impact, squabbling along the way over jurisdiction. Federal environment ministers have been saying emissions regulations are imminent since 2006. Companies have often been left to monitor themselves.

Getting the word out on tar sands pollution

Alexandra Paul | Winnipeg Free Press - November 18th 2014

Press Clipping: Scientists found pay dirt in tests on beavers and in samples of willow, which soaks up toxins through its roots. From there, the science traced the effects of tar sands pollution on human health, including the cancer rates. "These exercises showed the oilsands were having an explicit and significant effect on human health. The occurrence of cancer embodied both the science and the traditional knowledge,” said lead scientist Stéphane McLachlan.

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.