Toxic atmosphere surrounds tailing ponds crisis management

July 21, 2010

By Nathan Lemphers
Policy Analyst – Oil Sands
Pembina Institute

Nathan Lemphers - click to download image for print

EDMONTON, AB, July 21, 2010/ – Who’s in charge anyway?

That is the question I was left with when I recently went looking to see what kinds of plans were in place in case of an emergency involving toxic liquid tailings waste deposited by oil sands mines north of Fort McMurray, Alberta.

The problem is, instead of finding what I was looking for, I was sent on a wild goose chase, leading me to another question: Does anyone know what happens if something goes wrong?

A lack of transparency

Increasingly, both investors and communities are demanding transparency when it comes to the environmental impacts and risks associated with energy projects – especially in the wake of the BP’s Gulf oil disaster.

Commonplace in most industries, emergency preparedness plans are developed to outline exactly what would happen in a crisis. But my attempt at finding out who exactly is in charge of preparing one for tailings lakes, and what that plan is in the event of an emergency involving a tailings dam breach, was fruitless.

My first stop was Alberta Environment, which is responsible for managing dam safety in the province. Unfortunately, a representative explained that Alberta Environment does not own the information contained in such plans and that I need to contact the oil sands operators.

So, that’s what I did. I contacted Suncor Energy, Syncrude Canada and Shell Canada. But none of these companies would release their plans.

Alberta Environment also directed me to the local municipality. Surely, I thought, someone there would be able to provide the information since local residents and the local environment would be affected in the case of an emergency. I contacted the director for emergency services for the Municipality of Wood Buffalo, responsible for emergency planning for downstream communities like Fort McKay and Fort Chipewyan. I was told that the municipality does not own that information and I was redirected back to the oil sands operators.

The bottom line? Because the government considers the performance and emergency planning for tailings proprietary information, it is considered confidential and, therefore, is not accessible to the public. The information cannot even be fully accessed through the Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act.

Is there any wonder that there is scepticism about whether the Government of Alberta and oil sands operators are diligently managing the impacts and risks associated with oil sands development?

Remember, just two weeks ago the Standing Committee on Environment and Sustainable Development, charged with reporting on oil sands risks to water, mysteriously shredded, according to The Tyee, their final report despite damning testimony about evidence of gaps in Canada’s approach to regulation of water in the oil sands.

That lack of transparency around tailings management is only adding to the scepticism.

According to water expert Dr. David Schindler, Killam Memorial Professor of Ecology at the University of Alberta, “If any of those [tailings ponds] were ever to breach and discharge into the river, the world would forever forget about the Exxon Valdez.” With the Athabasca and Mackenzie rivers, as well as communities downstream, likely to be impacted, transparency of tailings management documents is paramount.

Actions speak louder than words

The rights of community members and concerned individuals to access emergency preparedness plans and performance reports should trump private property rights.

Alberta Premier Ed Stelmach’s Council for Economic Strategy admitted last week that “It may take a dramatic gesture to convince a skeptical public to applaud Alberta as a responsible natural resource steward.”

I agree, and a good first gesture to addressing some of that scepticism would be by making tailings management information publicly accessible.

Learn more about risks to the Mackenzie Basin in the Pembina’s Institute’s report Northern Lifeblood: Empowering Northern Leaders to Protect the Mackenzie River Basin from Oil Sands Risks.