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A Nexen oil sands facility seen from a helicopter near Fort McMurray, Alta., Tuesday, July 10, 2012. (Jeff McIntosh/THE CANADIAN PRESS)
A Nexen oil sands facility seen from a helicopter near Fort McMurray, Alta., Tuesday, July 10, 2012. (Jeff McIntosh/THE CANADIAN PRESS)

Tim Gray

The tar sands don’t have to pollute the water. So why do they? Add to ...

In Canada, water is a key aspect of our collective identity. Our geography and history are shaped by water – the water that flows in winding rivers, over spectacular waterfalls, crashes onto shorelines, and rests in lakes that defy logic in their size, clarity, and turquoise depths. No matter where you live, chances are that you have powerful memories attached to at least one of Canada’s unique waterscapes.

Water is also a shared resource in Canada. Something we all enjoy without significant cost and with confidence that it is clean and safe (with some notable exceptions, particularly in First Nations communities). We use it on a daily basis to cook with, swim in, grow our food, and drink. While many of us are doing our part to keep water safe and clean, it’s a different story when it comes to Alberta tar sands companies.

The tar sands industry spends tens of millions of dollars bombarding Canadians with ads on TV, online, and in print, trying to convince us that the tar sands are not harming our water. Unfortunately, nothing could be further from the truth and Canadians deserve a reality check when it comes to the impact of tar sands extraction on our water.

The process of extracting, processing and transporting bitumen requires enormous quantities of water. In 2011 alone the tar sands used 170 million cubic metres of water, equivalent to the residential use of 1.7 million Canadians. Most of this water is being taken from the Athabasca River, a massive tributary of the Mackenzie, one of the largest and most ecologically significant rivers in the world. The lack of ecologically based regulations regarding extraction rates means tar sands developers could continue to withdraw water from the Athabasca until the river can no longer support the ecosystems and life that depend on it.

Historically, the development of the tar sands industry has been made possible and profitable through the development of new technology. However, investment in environmental performance has not kept pace with the increases in extraction rates. Technology exists, for example, to generate far less liquid tailings waste, yet companies continue to generate over 200 million litres of this toxic liquid each day. These tailings leak about 11 million litres of toxic waste into the river and surrounding land each and every day – over the course of a year that is enough toxic waste to fill Toronto’s Rogers Centre two and a half times.

Often the public is told about how new rules and standards will better protect the health of local ecosystems and people, but not if they are being largely ignored. For example, between 2011 and 2012, not a single company was in compliance with Alberta’s Directive 074, which requires a modest progress in accelerating the cleanup of tailings waste. The Provincial government has done nothing to punish the industry for breaking the rules – therefore rendering them toothless.

Findings from research and expert review panels have also heavily criticized the monitoring of tar sands impacted regions, finding even basic monitoring deficient. The result is that government and industry cannot accurately measure and monitor the impact of tar sands extraction on water resources. Research done by Erin Kelly and David Schindler of the University of Alberta, for example, concluded that the current monitoring system has “serious defects.” In total, the absence of effective enforcement and monitoring rewards lack of industry investment in environmental management. It allows industry to avoid paying the real cost of using and polluting water and it encourages tar sands companies to treat Canada’s shared water as their personal resource and a toxic dumping ground.

Fortunately, the tar sands industry and its regulators are increasingly under a microscope as they face growing questions from scientists and concerned citizens. There is also growing scrutiny from major trading partners like the United States who are rightfully concerned that the Canadian tar sands are polluting water and air at the same time that industry wants to expand them and sell to new markets.

As a result it is becoming harder to deny the devastating impacts of rapid tar sands growth on nearby water, air, and land and the global increase in climate change-causing pollution. All these impacts are being driven by the burning of fossil fuels and it has never been clearer that we need a plan to phase them out and develop safe, clean and renewable energy. While we work towards this brighter energy future, we also need to ensure that current tar sands operations are doing as little damage to our shared environment as possible.

Improvements in dealing with tailings and reducing water use and pollution are obvious places to make meaningful change. The technology is available and could be implemented much more ambitiously. Instead of bombarding Canadians with a bonanza of pro-tar sands ads that desperately try to paint the tar sands green, the industry should roll out plans that actually make a difference.

Tim Gray is executive director of Environmental Defence Canada.

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