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The Suncor operation in Alberta near which officials were seen taking samples from the Athabasca River following a pipeline leak on March 25. (Brett Gundlock/ Boreal Collectiv For The Globe and Mail)
The Suncor operation in Alberta near which officials were seen taking samples from the Athabasca River following a pipeline leak on March 25. (Brett Gundlock/ Boreal Collectiv For The Globe and Mail)

Alberta says Suncor spill would have killed aquatic life if undiluted Add to ...

The toxic waste water that Suncor Energy Inc. spilled into the Athabasca River would have killed aquatic life if undiluted, according to the Alberta government.

On Friday the province provided a glimpse into its investigation of Suncor’s March 25 spill, saying the samples of undiluted waste water were lethal to fingerling rainbow trout. The water samples, however, are not comparable to the fluid that poured into the river because they do not account for dilution; the province is still investigating whether diluted samples would be harmful.

“The process-affected water that was released did not meet all the parameters of these guidelines, and did not pass the standard 96-hour rainbow trout toxicity test; however, there is no concern to human health,” Alberta said in a blog posting.

The province is now examining “the effects of dilution of the process-affected water by both treated water in the combined outfall pipe and the river water.”

Sneh Seetal, a spokeswoman for Suncor, said tests conducted by a third party on diluted water samples did not kill fish. “What was released to the river was within our regulated approvals,” she said.

On March 25, Suncor spilled about 350,000 litres of industrial waste water into the Athabasca River over 10 hours, causing “a short term, negligible impact on the river,” the company said.

Energy companies are under intense scrutiny as the Canadian government decides whether to approve the Northern Gateway oil-sands pipeline to the West Coast and the U.S. government considers whether to approve the Keystone XL pipeline to the Gulf Coast. While Suncor’s spill is does not involve pipelines, environmental critics say it demonstrates the dangers of bitumen production and the inability of Alberta’s regulations to keep the companies in check.

Alberta put fingerling rainbow trout in samples of Suncor’s undiluted waste water. The fish died and Suncor failed the test, according to Jessica Potter, a spokeswoman for Alberta’s department of Environment and Sustainable Resource Development. The province compared the water samples to the Alberta surface-water guidelines and released its finding on a blog.

“This will help determine what potential environmental impacts may have occurred.”

The government does “not expect there to be an effect on aquatic life,” because of dilution, Ms. Potter said.

The acute toxicity in the government’s rainbow trout test is “most likely” caused by the naphthenic acid concentration, Alberta said. These compounds are found in bitumen and are present at low levels in creeks cutting through bitumen deposits, the government said.

The tests examined a slew of hydrocarbons, organics and metals, with some coming in above guidelines and some below.

For example: Pyrene, listed in the hydrocarbons section, “was present at twice the chronic guideline for aquatic life, but not at levels that would pose a risk to aquatic life,” the blog said.

Some salt ions, in the organics category, “were also present at elevated concentrations,” it said. “While not acutely toxic at these concentrations, unauthorized release of salts into the river are not desirable.”

Ms. Potter defended the province’s decision to release the update on a blog rather than a formal press release. “We actually have very good readership on our blog,” she said.

Suncor spilled toxic water for three days at the same site in 2011, the government revealed last monthin March.

The oil-sands giant also leaked 225 barrels of soybean-based diesel fuel at its Port Moody, B.C., facility Saturday. A small amount, roughly two litres, reached Burrard Inlet, Suncor said. The company disclosed the leak only after media reported it.

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