Oil Sands Truth: Shut Down the Tar Sands

New rules govern cleanup of tailings ponds

New rules govern cleanup of tailings ponds
February 4, 2009

EDMONTON -- A controversial byproduct of oil-sands operations at the centre of an environmental scandal last spring involving 500 dead ducks will be subjected to tougher rules by Alberta's energy regulator.

Tailings ponds - the toxic, watery waste left over from bitumen processing - must be cleaned up and better managed under new targets and timelines for oil-sands producers.

The rules released yesterday by the Energy Resources Conservation Board were denounced by some environmental groups as too weak, while the oil-sands industry called them too tough.

According to the ERCB, the changes have been in the works for about five years. However, it was only last June that a draft of the new regulations for tailings ponds was first proposed and circulated to interested groups, including oil-sands companies.

This type of oil-sands pollution made international headlines last April when 500 birds died after landing on a snow-covered tailings pond at a Syncrude Canada Ltd.'s plant near Fort McMurray, Alta. Environment Canada and the Alberta government are both probing the matter, which could result in charges or hefty fines.

"What happened at Syncrude really underlies the need for us to have firm goals to have tailings ponds remediated as quickly as possible," said Davis Sheremata, an ERCB spokesman.

Since the late 1960s, oil-sands companies had been allowed to manage tailings ponds on a voluntary basis.

Jake Irving, executive director of the Oil Sands Developers Group, said the industry has been working on the tailings ponds issue for some time, but that the new rules will be tough to meet.

Alberta's oil-sands producers have until Sept. 30 to file plans with the ERCB on how they intend to comply with the new rules, including one that all tailings ponds be "trafficable" - dried out and ready for reclamation - within five years of being deemed inactive.

The shallow, lake-sized tailings ponds occupy a combined area of 130 square kilometres in Northern Alberta.

Shawn Davis, a Suncor Energy Inc. spokeswoman, said the company is reviewing the new rules.

"It's our understanding that it's a tough directive, but that we'll absolutely be able to meet the directive and we're going to have to find ways to do it," she said.

Companies that don't obey the new regulations could face sanctions, including being forced to close parts or all of their multibillion-dollar facilities.

Environmental groups are concerned the rules don't go far enough. "This government should have regulated tar-sands companies to cease producing wet toxic tailings given the tremendous impacts on fish, bird, animal and potentially human populations," said Mike Hudema, a Greenpeace Canada spokesman.

With a report from Nathan VanderKlippe in Calgary


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