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“Promises of responsible oil sands development ring hollow”

Billion litres of coal-mine muck leaks into Athabasca River

tarsandspondsA BILLION LITERS! That’s like 300 million gallons of “muck” released into the Athabasca River from the Obed Mountain coal mine in Alberta. This is , of course, one of hundreds of tailings ponds used by the giant tar sands mines all through the boreal north. Oil companies have long guaranteed that the ponds are safe and can never fail.

“I haven’t seen this happen. Coal mine incidents and pit leak incidents are really rare,” [a spokesman for the Alberta Energy Regulator] said. “I was surprised this could happen.”

Not true of course, but it sounds good. This is just one more example of the horrible cost of tar sands oil. The tar sands are an environmental nightmare that we will be living with for centuries and the Athabasca River is taking the current brunt of the damage. “A study conducted by University of Alberta biologists and ecologists released Monday concluded that 13 toxic pollutants found in Alberta’s Athabasca River came from the oil sands.”

Last year: “On Monday, the leak from a water pipe at the Suncor oil-sands site saw an estimated 350,000 litres of industrial waste water pour into the Athabasca over a 10-hour period, causing “a short-term, negligible impact on the river,” according to the company.” This followed another huge leak in 2011. You could spend hours on Google reading about the leaky tar sands mining operations. Here are just a few of the facts about tar sands mining.

  • Oil sands mining is licensed to use twice the amount of fresh water that the entire city of Calgary uses in a year. The water requirements for oil sands projects range from 2.5 to 4.0 barrels of water for each barrel of oil produced.
  • Oil sands mining is licensed to use twice the amount of fresh water that the entire city of Calgary uses in a year. The water requirements for oil sands projects range from 2.5 to 4.0 barrels of water for each barrel of oil produced.
  • At least 90% of the fresh water used in the oil sands ends up in tailing lakes so toxic thatpropane cannons and floating scarecrows are used to keep ducks from landing in them.
  • The toxic tailing lakes are considered one of the largest human-made structures in the world. The toxic lakes in Northern Alberta span 50 square kilometers and can be seen from space.
  • A 2003 report concluded that “an accident related to the failure of one of the oil sands tailings ponds could have catastrophic impact in the aquatic ecosystem of the Mackenzie River Basin due to the size of these lakes and their proximity to the Athabasca River.”

The size and scale of these leaking ponds are striking. About a dozen “ponds” rise 300 feet above the ground and cover 80 square miles of boreal forest and wetlands. Until recently, the U.S. Department of the Interior rated Syncrude’s Tailing Dam as the world’s largest dam in terms of volume of construction material (706,320,000 cubic yards). Now China’s Three Gorges Dam holds the title.

Almost all the dikes in the tar sands are leaking, but the Alberta government does not report the volume of seepage. For more than 40 years, Suncor’s Tar Island dike directly spewed or leaked bitumen and chemicals into the Athabasca River.

Environmental Defense recently calculated that one billion gallons of tailings waste now leaches into groundwater or surface water every year. In a recent mining blog, Jack Caldwell, a crusty U.S. geotechnical engineer, didn’t think the U.S. EPA would tolerate such a situation. “But then Canada is a small country of rugged individuals living in a harsh climate.”

The current leak took place, fittingly, on Halloween.

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