Alberta Oil Sands Regulator Does Not Enforce Toxic Tailings Rules

Syncrude is Given a Pass to Delay Liquid Tailings Clean Up

Calgary, April
— One day after Alberta Premier Ed Stelmach announced he would
“force an end to tailings ponds,” Alberta’s oil sands regulator, the
Alberta Energy and Resources Conservation Board (ERCB), has approved
plans for Syncrude that do not comply with Alberta’s Directive 074 and
would delay implementation of liquid tailings clean up by the oil sands

the tough talk about cleaning up tailings, Alberta has accepted a plan
from Syncrude that does not comply with its own rules to clean up
tailings waste,” says Joe Obad, interim executive director for Water

September 2009, nine oil sands operations submitted plans to deal with
liquid tailings from the oil sands extraction process. An analysis of
the plans by the Pembina Institute and Water Matters concluded that
seven out of nine operations have submitted plans that were not
compliant with Directive 074. Since then, the ERCB has been meeting with
companies behind closed doors to assess the plans. On April 23, the
ERCB announced decisions on three plans, and will be accepting all three
plans, despite the fact that two of the plans, for Syncrude’s Mildred
Lake and Aurora oil sands mines, do not meet the requirements.

The ERCB’s press
release validates the Pembina Institute and Water Matters analysis that
the Syncrude plans do not meet the requirements of the Directive 074. 

The directive
specifies a phase-in approach for tailings reductions. The ERCB explains
it in terms of “fines captures,” which means that of the total liquid
tailings being produced, a certain percentage must be made solid. As
evidenced in the chart below, Syncrude’s approval conditions fail to
meet the requirements.

Critical Date
Directive 74
Performance Requirement
Mildred Lake
June 30, 2011
Fines Capture
Fines Capture


June 30, 2012
Fines Capture
Fines Capture
Fines Capture
June 30, 2013
Fines Capture
Fines Capture


2014 onwards
Fines Capture



ERCB reports that tailings lakes have grown by 40 square kilometres in
the past year to now cover 170 square kilometres (a volume of 840
billion litres), providing further evidence the problem of tailings
waste continues to grow.

Tailings are toxic and cannot be released into the
environment. They are created during the oil sands extraction process,
and are a fluid mixture of water, sand, silt clay, unrecovered
hydrocarbons and dissolved chemicals. 

Tailings lakes pose an ongoing threat to
surface water and groundwater through seepage, could become a
significant public liability if a company cannot cover the cleanup
costs, and pose a mortality risk to waterfowl. The growing legacy of
toxic tailings is a concern, making compliance with Directive 074 all
the more important.

“Oil sands environmental regulations should not be
negotiable,” Simon Dyer, oil sands program director for the Pembina
Institute, says. He continues, “Not enforcing environmental rules
stifles innovation and the clean up that is required, is unfair to
companies that are proposing to address the tailings problem and further
damages Alberta’s and Canada’s reputation.” 

Dyer added: “Yesterday the Premier clearly stated that the
government must be prepared to push companies much harder to prevent new
liquid tailings and clean up existing tailings. We encourage the
Premier to empower the ERCB with the formal policy direction it needs to
do just that.”


For more information, contact:

Simon Dyer
Oil Sands Program Director
Pembina Institute
Tel: 403-322-3937
Joe Obad
Interim Executive Director
Tel: 403-585-5826

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