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August 19, 2010

New Canadian Government Study Admits Poisonous Tailings Lakes are Getting Worse

After the Canadian House of Commons Standing Committee mysteriously canceled an 18 month study on tar sands tailings and water quality -- even going so far as to shred the drafts-- members of the Liberal government and Environment Canada recently released a report on tailings waste, showing dramatic increases in many toxic substances.

This release came as a result of a lawsuit filed by EcoJustice, a leading Canadian legal advocacy group, in conjunction with Great Lakes United and Mining Watch Canada.

The shocking data released in the report is a major blow to the culture of secrecy and minimal oversight practiced by the Alberta government around tar sands tailings.

Industry has repeatedly sought to characterize the toxic lakes as benign ‘water recycling’ sites, and so far the oil royalty-soaked Alberta government has expressed little interest in regulating the massive waste ponds as toxic facilities.

The report makes public what opponents of the tar sands industry have been saying all along- that the government and industry are lying about the toxicity of tailings, and these massive poison lakes are a real threat to public heath and environment in Canada.

The report details a laundry list of rising toxic chemical concentrations in the 50,000 tons of tar sands tailings released between 2006 and 2009. Arsenic, a toxin sold as rat poison, increased 26 percent -- from 256 thousand kilograms in 2006 to 322 thousand kilograms in 2009. Other toxic heavy metals, like cadmium, surged 36 percent; nickel and lead increased 30 percent. Mercury, a potent neurotoxin, rose 13 percent in the same period. Concentrations of benzene and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, both known human carcinogens, also rose.

The report leaves out naphthenic acids -- a chemical that researchers consider the most potent toxin in tar sands tailings, but the Alberta government has resisted classifying as a pollutant because it can be hard to track and remains dangerous for decades.

These figures are especially alarming considering current plans to triple tar sands production by 2025. For every one barrel of water produced, up to six barrels of freshwater are contaminated. The resulting contaminated waste water inevitably leaks into groundwater- by some estimates at a rate of 11 million liters a day.

If the industry continues its current tailings disposal practices, levels of toxins in Canada’s water and environment will inevitably and dramatically increase.

The Alberta government will have a much tougher sell in making tar sands and its toxic byproducts seem safe in light of this study. One can only hope Alberta Premier Ed Stelmach, a longtime ally of tar sands, will take action to protect the health of Alberta’s people and environment by creating stringent standards for tailings disposal instead of propagating the fallacy of safety upheld by current lax regulations.


--Gabriel DeRita


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