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Tailings pond passes second inspection

Tailings pond passes second inspection
Toxic sludge leak story discredited

By Dan Healing, Calgary Herald November 16, 2010

CALGARY - A Tuesday morning tour of an oilsands tailings pond that CBC News claimed appeared to be leaking toxic sludge confirms that it is not, according to Alberta Environment.

"It confirmed what the ERCB (Energy Resources Conservation Board) confirmed (Monday), that all is being done as required in their approval and there is no release," said department spokesman Mark Cooper in an interview.

The tour of the site north of Fort McMurray near Fort MacKay included a representative for Environment Canada, acting on orders from federal Environment Minister John Baird.

Spokesman Mark Johnson said in an e-mail the department is "reviewing the information that has been provided" to determine if any further action is required.

The story posted on CBC's website Monday included a picture of the tailings pond that seemed to show the toxic mixture of waste water, clay, bitumen and chemicals were spilling from an unguarded west shore of the pond.

However, in a statement Monday, the ERCB said the pond was secure - designed so that a hill with a thick layer of clay formed the west shore while the other three sides are contained by berms. Because the pond is only a year old, the tailings are only gradually filling the entire reach of the pond.

The story sparked questions in the Alberta legislature and on Parliament Hill, with Baird vowing to send staff "to get a first-hand look and commence an investigation if necessary."

Calvin Duane, environment manager for the Horizon mine, said the company's environmental staff led the tour, also attended by a person from Alberta Sustainable Resource Development.

"They had lots of questions, as you can imagine," he said, adding he was in constant communication through the day. "They were asking a series of questions related to their jurisdictional areas."

Duane said Canadian Natural will revisit issues posed by the intense attention, including its decision not to put a fence around the pond to keep animals out.

Environmentalists, opposition politicians and local natives attacked that point in particular, suggesting that animals that are exposed to the pond might absorb toxins that could be ingested by local hunters.

"We've looked at a lot of things in the past - for example, our vegetation clearing program for 2011. We looked at a fencing option in the past and again this year," he said.

"All of those are back on the table to be looked at again to make sure that the decisions made were correct."

Tailings ponds are used to store water to be reused in the oilsands transportation and upgrading processes.

Under the ERCB's Directive 74, adopted over a year ago, companies must provide a plan to reduce the amount of liquid fine tailings they store and provide timely reclamation of land used for tailings ponds.

Canadian Natural's plan has not yet been approved by the ERCB but will call for the area west of the pond in question to be used in the reclamation process.

© Copyright (c) The Calgary Herald


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