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Suncor release illuminates lesser-known contamination source

Suncor's Fort Hills camp in 2015. Jason Woodhead/Flickr (https://www.flickr.com/photos/80365963@N00/16169441353)

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A release from a Suncor oil sands mine over the weekend highlights regulatory issues and a major source of contamination that people often don’t hear about, one expert says.

On Sunday, Suncor reported that 5.9 million litres of water had been released from a settlement pond at its Fort Hills oil sands mine into a creek that drains into the Athabasca River.

The level of suspended solids in the released water was 116 milligrams per litre, more than twice the limit imposed by the Alberta Energy Regulator (AER) of 50 milligrams.

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The Suncor incident comes after a massive tailings pond spill and an ongoing, nearly year-long leak were reported at Imperial’s Kearl oil sands mine. Imperial, the AER, and the federal and provincial governments are facing criticism of their handling of the situation.

Mandy Olsgard, an environmental toxicologist and risk assessment specialist who has studied the oil sands, said the incidents at Kearl and Suncor both increase the amount of chemicals entering the environment and moving downstream to communities – but the releases highlight two different issues.

Olsgard said the Imperial issue is tailings contaminating groundwater, while the Suncor release is about the problem of approved discharges contaminating surface water.

She said the Suncor incident highlights another way chemicals reach the Athabasca River from oil sands mining that most people don’t know about.

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Oil sands operators have approved discharges, Olsgard explained. For instance, it’s common for projects to capture surface water runoff and let it settle before releasing it to the environment, as the Globe and Mail reported.

This water is not tailings water, Olsgard clarified. “It’s another wastewater stream that’s generated by oil sands mining.”

Approved discharges happen every day, Olsgard said, and limits on certain constituents are used to monitor the water for safe release. When levels get too high, operators stop the discharge.

In the case of the Suncor release, total suspended solids exceeded the daily limit, she said, which is why the incident was reported to the public on the AER’s compliance dashboard.

“These things happen all of the time,” Olsgard said.

“I have never actually seen the AER post it publicly. It’s usually in reports submitted by operators to the AER, and people like me review those.

“I’ve been asking for years that these types of incidents be uploaded to the AER incident dashboard, but they’re not.”

Olsgard suspects that because Imperial’s Kearl issues have such a high profile, Suncor and the AER decided to make the latest incident public.

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If the AER posted notices for every exceedance, Olsgard said, there would be thousands each year.

Olsgard added that release limits on approved discharges are set very high, and allow for surface water guideline exceedances in small areas of the river.

“The limits don’t protect the environment or people,” she said.

“It’s opening up this whole other issue, which is another example of regulatory capture.”

What’s in the water?

On Tuesday, Suncor spokesperson Erin Rees told Cabin Radio that the company responded to “silty conditions in a surface water pond at its Fort Hills site.”

The water collected in the pond is surface water, Rees said, “which means it’s naturally occurring on our lease and includes snow melt and precipitation. The surface water from this pond is approved for discharge to Fort Creek to the Athabasca River.”

Rees added: “A visual inspection of the pond on April 16 indicated siltier conditions than what was expected and actions were taken to stop the discharge.”

Even though the water released at Suncor’s Fort Hills site didn’t come from tailings, the breach is still concerning, said Paul Belanger, science advisor for Keepers of the Water, an Indigenous-led non-profit focused on the Arctic Ocean’s drainage basin.

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Some of the water is derived from melting snow, Belanger said, and older studies show that over the winter, snow accumulates particulate matter, acid deposition and other materials that may have toxic effects.

For example, a class of chemicals known as polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) – some of which are carcinogenic – and soot can accumulate on snow, Belanger said. When that snow melts in the spring, he said it can acutely affect the river.

At this point, however, it’s still unclear what was in Suncor’s release and at what levels, leaving questions about its potential effects.

Suncor isn’t being transparent, Belanger said, and the AER doesn’t require transparency from the company.

“We are always told the bare minimum,” said Jesse Cardinal, executive director of Keepers of the Water.

Cardinal said the lack of clarity allows companies to continue using harmful practices without the public understanding how harmful they truly are.

When Cabin Radio asked Olsgard what might be in the released water, she said she had reviewed a Suncor report from February, the most recent she could find.

“It looks like ammonia could be exceeding surface water quality guidelines all the time,” she said, although she added that Suncor doesn’t provide the information needed to compare the company’s monitoring data to guidelines.

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Ammonia can affect fish and aquatic organisms, Olsgard said, although she noted that the levels are quite low compared to other discharges she has seen.

Olsgard said she isn’t as concerned about Suncor’s recent release as the cumulative impact of all approved discharges going into the watershed.

Oil sands mines have 43 approved discharges, 36 of which are actively releasing, she said.

These releases often exceed surface water quality guidelines for sulfide, nitrogen, phosphorus, metals, and even toxicity at times, she said, stating: “This is a much larger issue.”

Alberta ‘incapable’ of managing contamination

According to Cardinal, when companies apply to build an oil sands mine, federal and provincial governments assess their impact on an individual basis. She said regulators and authorities need to pay more attention to the cumulative impacts of industry on the watershed.

“You have one spill here, you have one spill there. It all adds up,” she said.

The Suncor release and the ongoing disaster at Kearl underline systemic problems with the provincial regulator as well as issues with the management and structural integrity of the tailings ponds, Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation (ACFN) said in a press release on Wednesday.

“Suncor’s actions highlight the continued failure of the AER to prevent, properly communicate, or proactively regulate environmental catastrophes in the oil sands. The AER needs to be disbanded and replaced with a new agency that is able to properly oversee industry,” Chief Allan Adam was quoted as saying.

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As with the Kearl incident, the AER did not notify communities beyond the Alberta border that their water might be contaminated, the First Nation stated. ACFN said that, again, it fell upon the First Nation to alert residents of the Northwest Territories.

“The Alberta government has shown the world that it is incapable of managing this problem,” ACFN stated.


This article is produced under a Creative Commons CC BY-ND 4.0 licence through the Wilfrid Laurier University Climate Change Journalism Fellowship.