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Court orders tar sands corporations to list contents of tailings

Court orders oilsands to list contents of tailings
Ecojustice lawyers convince judge to overrule environment minister

By Hanneke Brooymans, The Edmonton Journal
May 28, 2009

More information about the toxic content of oilsands tailings ponds that sprawl over 130 square kilometres in northeast Alberta will soon be made public because of a Federal Court decision.

The information will allow authorities to plan properly for a potential catastrophe, like a breach of the dikes that hold the tailings water, said a lawyer with Ecojustice, the legal organization that represented MiningWatch Canada and Great Lakes United.

They successfully challenged the federal government's unwillingness to collect this information from mining companies in 2007. Their original target was metal mines, but the court ruling is broad enough to include oilsands mines.

In late April, Federal Court Judge James Russell ruled that Canada's environment minister made a mistake in thinking the Canadian Environmental Protection Act did not require mining companies to report the material that ends up in tailings and waste rock disposal areas.

Other large industries and institutions are required to report all their toxic emissions. That information is in a public database system called the National Pollutant Release Inventory, managed by the federal government.

Earlier this week, Environment Canada told the environment groups that it won't appeal the judge's decision.

Ecojustice lawyer Justin Duncan said it's important to know what's going into the oilsands tailings ponds.

"I think we've got evidence that a lot of these things leak," he said.

It's useful for the public to know what's in the ponds so people can tell the government how they think the facilities should be regulated, he added.

Travis Davies, a spokesman for the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers, said there "needs to be a lot more clarity about what exactly is going to be recorded, and what, and when."

Alberta Environment supports the Federal Court ruling, said Ogho Ikhalo, a ministry spokeswoman.

A set of rules introduced this year by the Energy Resources Conservation Board will complement the new federal requirements, Ikhalo said.

Until now, oilsands companies were required to tell the government the amount of tailings they produced each year. But now they will also be required to provide a breakdown of what's in the tailings, she said.

Tailings are composed of water, sands, silt, clay and residual bitumen from the oilsands extraction processes. Oilsands tailings also contain more toxic components, such as naphthenic acids, ammonia, benzene, toluene, creosols, asphaltene, phenols and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, says a 2008 paper by a Natural Resources Canada scientist. There are also heavy metals, such as arsenic and lead.

© Copyright (c) The Edmonton Journal


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