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Suncor, contractors charged with dumping into Athabasca

Suncor, contractors charged with dumping into Athabasca (article one of two)
March 11, 2009

Oilsands powerhouse Suncor and two of its contractors have been charged under Alberta’s Environmental Protection and Enhancement Act with 90 counts of dumping poorly treated sewage water into the Athabasca River.

The companies, which were all charged back in February 2008, are also accused of providing misleading and false information to the province for two years at Suncor’s work camp north of Fort McMurray.

“This is serious, we are prosecuting at the moment, this is before the courts,” said Premier Ed Stelmach in the Legislature Wednesday.

“We are monitoring it and this shows the system is working.”

The government accuses Suncor and its contractors, Compass Group of Canada and R&D McCabe Ltd., that they “knowingly provided misleading or false information” sometime August 2005 to January 2007.

“These are charges once again show that the government’s system of letting industry report and police itself is incredibly flawed,” said Mike Hudema with Greenpeace.

Suncor is expected to appear in a Fort McMurray provincial courtroom April 2 on the charges and the province says the maximum penalty for the charges is a $1 million fine.


Suncor facing charges after partially-treated sewage dumped into Alberta river
March 11, 2009
FORT MCMURRAY, Alta. - A major oilsands player in Alberta is facing pollution charges that were laid more than a year ago and some are wondering if Premier Ed Stelmach's Tory government kept the matter quiet because of an election campaign.
Suncor Energy and two of its contractors were charged in February of last year, shortly before the March 3 provincial election, with dumping dirty wastewater from two northern work camps into the Athabasca River.
But the government made no announcement about the charges and the closest downstream community appears to have been kept in the dark about human wastes being dumped in the river.
"Did the government hide this information from Albertans because an election was coming?" asked Liberal Leader David Swann. "Did they not consider the public's right to know?"
Environment Minister Rob Renner said he was briefed a year ago about the charges and simply assumed that a news release had been issued.
"I wasn't aware that it was a secret," Renner told reporters Wednesday. "I certainly was aware of it."
The minister explained he felt the information became public once charges were laid, even though provincial court records are not published and are only released for a fee.
"I was under the impression that since it was before the courts, everyone else had the same level of knowledge," he said.
But Renner also conceded that the crux of the case is the requirement that communities be alerted if some kind of pollution threatens people's health.
"There is an obligation on the part of an operator to let downstream folks know," said the minister.
Stelmach was forced to respond to the issue in the legislature Wednesday and conceded that sewage had been dumped into the river for several years before the problem was uncovered.
"What went into the river was crap," the premier said bluntly. "These are sewage lagoons."
Stelmach told the assembly that anyone who abuses environmental laws in Alberta will be charged "and brought to justice."
Suncor spokesman Brad Bellows said steps were taken to inform downstream communities.

But he also said the sewage likely had very little impact on water quality in the river because the Athabasca is a very high volume river and the amount of sewage that entered the water was "relatively small."

"We took action when we became aware of a possible problem in early 2007 and at that time the wastewater facility manager was dismissed," Bellows said.
The two work camps had a total of about 3,500 residents and are adjacent to each other near Suncor's main oilsands operation north of Fort McMurray.
"This is breaking news to us," said Jeff Winsor, deputy administrator for the aboriginal community of Fort McKay. "It's somewhat of a shocker that it would be a full year before charges were revealed."

Jeff Winsor, deputy administrator for the 600-member aboriginal community of Fort McKay, called it "a shocker."
His people take their water from another river and don't usually eat fish from the Athabasca. But Fort Chipewyan, roughly 500 kilometres downstream from the work camps, gets its water from a lake that's fed by the Athabasca River.

Melody Lepine, with the Mikisew Cree band in Fort Chipewyan, said Suncor downplayed the sewage discharge when it first informed the band roughly a year ago.
"We just had to take what the company at face value because that's the only information we had," said Lepine.
Band officials were angry and demanded that Suncor hold a public meeting, which happened about six months later, she said.

But Lepine said the band should have been alerted by the province's Environment Department and she suspects that March 3 election likely caused the government to shy away from issuing a news release.

"This would have been a huge embarrassment for them during an election," she said.

The contractors charged are the Compass Group Canada, which ran the camps, and Rodney McCabe, whose now-defunct company operated the two wastewater plants.

Environment Minister Rob Renner said the charges were laid after a routine audit found problems with the sewage discharge.

The case is scheduled to begin April 2 in provincial court in Fort McMurray.
McCabe, when reached at his home in Kamloops, B.C., refused comment and his lawyer in Calgary did not return calls.

Compass spokeswoman Brenda Brown said the company co-operated during the investigation.

"And we're prepared to take responsibility for any actions that properly rest with us and we will do so on April 2, which is the sentencing hearing," Brown said.
- By Jim Macdonald in Edmonton

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