One year after plans were announced for a new system to monitor the environmental effects of the Alberta tar sands, there is still no sign of any formal data.
In February of 2012, the federal government, in partnership with the government of Alberta, announced plans for a new three-year environmental monitoring system to collect information on the Alberta tar sands. Touted as world-class by environment ministers at both the federal and provincial levels, the three-year plan is meant to track data on water, air, land and wildlife, and provide annual reports for the first three years, followed by a comprehensive peer review in 2015.
“We will make the system highly transparent. We will ensure that the scientific data that is collected from our monitoring and analysis is publicly available with common quality assurances and common practices in place,” Environment Minister Peter Kent said a year ago, at a joint news conference with Alberta Environment Minister Diana McQueen.
The plans indicated that scientists would release information on an ongoing basis in some cases, and on three and six-month schedules in others. Officials anticipated the first round of information would be released before the end of last year.
The massive tailings ponds holding billions of litres of tar sands waste are leaking into Alberta's groundwater, according to internal documents obtained by Postmedia's Mike De Souza.
An internal memorandum prepared for Natural Resources Minister Joe Oliver and obtained through Access to Information legislation says evidence confirms groundwater toxins related to bitumen mining and upgrading are migrating from tailings ponds and are not naturally occurring as government and industry have previously stated.
"The studies have, for the first time, detected potentially harmful, mining-related organic acid contaminants in groundwater outside a long-established out-of-pit tailings pond," the memo reads. "This finding is consistent with publicly available technical reports of seepage (both projected in theory, and detected in practice)."
This newly released document shows the federal government has been aware of the problem since June 2012 without publicly addressing the information. The study, made available online by Natural Resources Canada in December 2012, was still "pending release" at the time Minister Oliver was briefed of its contents in June.
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Companies responsible for two separate oil spills in Alberta failed to provide adequate oversight for their operations, according to federal government documents released by Environment Canada through Access to Information legislation.
The documents detail how Devon Canada and Gibson Energy violated environmental laws, including the federal Fisheries Act, when their operations cause two oil spills into fish-bearing waterways in 2010.
Gibson Energy, a midstream pipeline operator, spilled a few hundred litres of oil into an Edmonton creek after failing to properly abandon an unused pipeline. According to a warning letter issued to the company from Environment Canada, "Gibson Energy ULC made a business decision to keep the Kinder Morgan lateral full of crude oil and to not purge it with nitrogen."
Senior scientist Derek Muir, who presented some of the findings at Wednesday's conference, said the contaminated region is "potentially larger than we might have anticipated." The 'legacy' of chemicals in lake sediment gives evidence that tar sands pollution has been traveling long distances for decades. Samples show the build up of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, or PAHs, known to cause cancer in humans and to be toxic to aquatic animals, in 6 remote and undisturbed lakes up to 100 kilometers away from tar sands operations.
The pollutants are "petrogenic" in nature, meaning they are petroleum derived, and have steadily and dramatically increased since the 1970s, showing the contaminant levels "seem to parallel the development of the oilsands industry," Muir said.
The Canadian government is working hard behind the scenes to cover up the negative effects that tar sands extraction is having on the local environment, wildlife, communities and the global climate. According to Access to Information documents obtained by Postmedia's Mike De Souza, the Stephen Harper government has actively suppressed the release of vital information regarding the spread of tar sands contamination by muzzling federal scientists.
The government of Canada and the government of Alberta denied the correlation, saying local waterways tested showed no signs of toxic contamination and reports of mutated and cancerous fish downstream from the tar sands were unfounded.