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'Constant Denial': Liberal Report on Tar Sands Is Scathing

Grits' dissenting report on two-year parliamentary study calls for sweeping reforms.

By Andrew Nikiforuk 19 Aug 2010 |

Andrew Nikiforuk, The Tyee's first writer in residence, is the author of Tar Sands: Dirty Oil and the Future of a Continent. It won the 2009 Rachel Carson Book Award.

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Liberal MP Francis Scarpaleggia: 'There will be more voices.'

A dissenting Liberal report on the highly contentious findings of a two-year long parliamentary study on the impact of the tar sands on Canada's freshwater supplies has accused both industry and government of being in a state of denial about "the potential negative consequences the industry might be having on a vital Canadian resource."

Calling for sweeping reforms and strong federal leadership on water science, the referenced 49-page report concluded that the Canadian government clearly lacks "proper knowledge on the state and dynamics of the regions water resources and how they will react to years of oil sands mining, both surface and in situ."

You can access the report in the right column below.

Based on 300 pages of expert public testimony to the Standing Committee on Environment and Sustainable Development from water scientists, Aboriginal chiefs and industry experts, the Liberal report found that industry developments are indeed contaminating the Athabasca River; that the framework for protecting the river is based on "bureaucratic compromise" as opposed to rigorous science-based policy; that there is inadequate baseline data and studies on the project's impact on groundwater; that the U.S. government regulates naphthenic acids, a key tar sands pollutant, but Canada doesn't; and finally that the federal government "has devolved and diluted" its water monitoring responsibilities.

Dodging pollution protection

After initially declaring the parliamentary investigation "a pretty honest attempt to get the facts" in 2009, the Alberta government then refused to testify before the standing committee and tell what Alberta Environment Minister Rob Renner describes as its "strong story" on responsible development.

The Liberal report also noted that the U.S. government regulates naphthenic acids as a water pollutant, but that Canada has no regulations for the industry's most harmful byproduct. The National Pollutant Release Inventory doesn't even list the fish killer, and Ottawa appears to have no plan to review the toxin in its new Chemical Management Plan.

Added the report, "Both these omissions give rise to suspicion the Harper government is surreptitiously protecting the oil sands industry against federal regulation of one of its most harmful pollutants."

Huge aquifers at risk

The water footprint of Canada's greatest engineering project is enormous. According to Natural Resources Canada, the tar sands mining industry, which produces 1.3 million barrels of bitumen a day, now uses 12 barrels of freshwater to produce one barrel of the asphalt-like heavy crude.

The industry has also constructed some of the world's largest dams along the Athabasca River to contain 170 square kilometres of toxic mining waste. That's enough sludge to fill a 10-by-10 metre canal across the U.S.-Canadian border from sea to sea. According to public testimony to the parliamentary committee, at least two of these toxic lakes are leaking into groundwater.

Unlike the mines, which will impact waterways and wetlands over a 4,000 kilometre area, the steam plants could affect aquifers over an area the size of Florida. These energy-intensive operations, which melt deep deposits of bitumen with steam, typically consume 3.5 barrels of groundwater to extract one barrel of bitumen. Some operations, such as Opti-Nexen, use up to six barrels.

'There was constant denial'

"What surprised me during the hearings was the defensive posturing of government. There was constant denial that there could be anything wrong," says the report's author, Francis Scarpaleggia, the federal MP for the Montreal West Island riding of Lac Saint-Louis.

Scarpaleggia, a former business administration teacher, wrote his dissenting report with other Liberal MPs after the parliamentary committee, chaired by Tory MP James Bezan, could not agree on the contents of a joint national report due last June. In secret the committee then decided to cancel its report and shredded a draft document.

As another indication of the highly fractious nature of Canada's new petro-politics, all four political parties that served on the committee will now issue their own reports on the impacts of the mega project on Canada's freshwater supplies.

Scarpaleggia says it is unprecedented for four parties to produce different reports on the same public testimony. "I've never heard of such a thing and I've been on the Hill for 16 years. But there will be more voices and I hope it will keep pressure on the government... Our report is much more detailed and referenced than a normal parliamentary report which tends to be bland."

Against the official spin

The Liberal report, which squarely challenges the public relations agenda of the Alberta government, is anything but bland: "Whether it is a lack of rigorous monitoring of pollutants and water levels in the Athabasca River or the absence of baseline data on fish habitat, or gaps in understanding the dynamics of groundwater systems and how they interact with surface water, one thing is clear: the oil sands are being developed without the necessary scientific data to draw accurate conclusions about industry impacts on freshwater supplies. Not only is this lack of information an obstacle to the effective regulation of current oil sands operations, it also undermines sound environmental assessment of future projects."

What the report recommends

The report makes 15 recommendations, including a longitudinal study of cancer rates in Fort Chipewyan, the regulation of naphthenic acids, comprehensive water quality studies on the Athabasca River and rigorous enforcement of the government's constitutional responsibilities under the Fisheries Act.

"I'd like to see the oil sands serve as a catalyst for a renaissance in Canadian water science at Environment Canada," says Scarpaleggia.

James Bezan, Conservative chair of the Standing Committee and a Manitoba MP, told The Hill Times last month that the government has invested $1.6 million in new technology to monitor naphthenic acids in the Athabasca River. Bezan also promised a separate Conservative report.

Both the New Democrats and Bloc Quebecois will also issue reports on their reading of public testimony on what is arguably the most important and divisive economic development in the nation's history.  [Tyee]

Read more: Energy, Environment

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