Alberta's tar sands tail ponds alone cover a Vancouver-sized area, and safety plans are secret.
Tailings pond in Alberta. Photo: NRDC.
As we watch the toxic tailings sludge devastate land and water in Hungary, Canadians wonder "could it happen here?" Canada does, after all, have tailings ponds across the country to contain the toxic byproducts of mining and tar sands production. But surely a country as developed and responsible as Canada would have strong regulatory safeguards in place to prevent such an accident compared to Hungary, right?
Now is the time to ask our federal government just that question, as it ponders granting approval for a new tar sands mine, proposed by French energy company Total, which would add two more tailings ponds and produce 12.5 billion litres of toxic tailings every year.
Total's Joslyn mine, if approved, would add to what is already a massive toxic liability in northern Alberta. Tar sands tailings ponds already cover an area larger than the City of Vancouver, and hold back 840 million cubic metres of toxic waste left over from tar sands production. The contaminated material is held back by unlined, earthen dams reaching as high as 300 feet. Worldwide, tailings dams are 10 times more likely to fail than other types of dams, and there have already been problems with some of the tar sands tailings dams.
The Alberta government says that companies have emergency response plans for tailings breaches, but none of these are open to public scrutiny. Given the proximity of the ponds to downriver Saskatchewan and Northwest Territories, the potential transboundary impacts of a major spill mean that the federal government has a responsibility to prevent that from happening.
Minister Prentice recently signaled that the federal government recognizes it needs to step up to meets its legal responsibilities regarding the tar sands when he appointed a science panel to review the pollution monitoring in the Athabasca River. Yet so far the federal government is generally hands off regarding the safety of the tailings dams, and has no emergency response plan to deal with a spill.
The nightmare scenario
Let's imagine what could take place. An earthen dam holding back 50 years worth of toxic waste at a tar sands mine bursts, and within hours, billions of litres of tailings have poured into the Athabasca River that flows north. The toxic slurry makes its way to the Athabasca Delta, a World Heritage Site and nesting ground for migratory birds from across the continent. It moves through the Mackenzie River basin, which drains a fifth of Canada's water supply and is the traditional homeland to dozens of Aboriginal communities, as well as countless birds, caribou, and other wildlife. Toxic tailings could finally make their way into the highly sensitive Arctic Ocean.
Drinking water for people downstream is contaminated with polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, a known human carcinogen, heavy metals and naphthenic acid, which harms liver, heart and brain function. Communities can no longer rely on fish as a staple food. And, over time, the aquatic ecosystems of the Athabasca and Great Slave Lake show the chronic symptoms of the toxic waste dumped into their waters.
The Alberta government tells people the company has a plan to deal with this sort of thing, but it soon becomes evident that the company is largely powerless to deal with a catastrophe of this scale. Federal officials watch as the toxic waste crosses out of Alberta into the Northwest Territories, and now it's their problem, but they have no emergency response plan of their own.
Put away the rubber stamp
Sound like hyperbole? The recent Hungarian event wasn't the first and won't be the last toxic tailings disaster. Two years ago, an earthen dyke burst at the Tennessee Valley Authority's coal plant in Kingston, Tennessee. The dyke had been holding back billions of litres of toxic coal ash, and within hours, nearly four billion litres -- enough to fill 1,600 Olympic-sized swimming pools -- spilled into the nearby Emory River and the downstream community of Harriman, eventually also reaching the Clinch and Tennessee rivers.
It happened in Hungary. It happened in the U.S. It can happen in Canada.
Will it take a tar sands catastrophe to get the Canadian government's attention?
Let's figure out how to deal with the risk of the toxic ponds already there rather than rubber-stamp new ones.