Suncor Energy Inc. has been charged by Alberta Environment with leaking dirty water into a major river and providing misleading information to the government about runoff at a stalled oil sands construction site.
In nine counts against the company, the province alleges Suncor unlawfully allowed dirt and rainwater to leak into the Athabasca River at its Voyageur upgrader construction site, in contravention of its water licence. Suncor also gave "misleading information to Alberta Environment regarding storm water runoff," the province alleges.
The charges come on the same day that Suncor chief executive officer Rick George made the case to Nancy Pelosi, the Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives and the third-ranking Democrat in Washington, that industry has made substantial strides in cleaning up its environmental practices.
"I am extremely proud, and made that point, of our whole track record of continuous improvement on the environmental front," Mr. George said in an interview. He called the oil sands "one of the most transforming industries in North America."
The charges stem from an alleged spill in May, 2008, although it took until September of that year for provincial authorities to find out about it, said Chris Bourdeau, a spokesman for Alberta Environment.
"It was storm water from rain that would have fallen on the site, mixed in with dirt because they were just in initial stages of construction," he said. The water "should have been collected and kept on site but it wasn't."
Suncor, however, disputed the allegations about providing misleading information, saying the company didn't report the incident until later because it did not at the time believe it had done anything wrong.
"We believed and understood that we were onside the regulations, therefore we did not file any reports indicating that we were offside the regulations," said Suncor spokesman Brad Bellows. He stressed that neither crude nor mine effluent was leaked, and said there was "no environmental impact from this."
Mr. Bourdeau declined to discuss how much water was released into the river, or whether the release was deliberate or inadvertent.
The company will appear in court on the charges on Nov. 3, according to an Alberta Environment statement. The maximum penalty is a $500,000 fine per charge.
The 200,000 barrel per day Voyageur upgrader was supposed to be in service by 2012, but construction was put on hold in January, 2009, and Suncor has since said it is looking for a partner to continue building the project.
The project is already 15 per cent complete, and its superstructure stands today like a skeleton on the road north of Fort McMurray.
Upgraders work a bit like a pre-refinery, transforming heavy oil sands bitumen into a lighter crude oil that can then be processed into end products like gasoline and jet fuel.