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Elizabeth Shope’s Blog

President Obama and Secretary Kerry should consider tar sands impacts on water when making decision about Keystone XL pipeline

Elizabeth Shope

Posted September 24, 2013 in Curbing Pollution, Environmental Justice, Moving Beyond Oil

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Click here to take actionToday, NRDC, Environmental Defence Canada, 350.org, Forest Ethics, and the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation released a new report Reality Check: Water and the Tar Sands which details the serious impacts that tar sands have on water, and the lack of monitoring and regulation of the tar sands industry’s water withdrawals and pollution. The Athabasca River and watershed in Alberta are being poisoned by leaching toxic waste lakes. Despite the fact that hydrocarbon pollutants have been found in the water, fish have been found with unnatural growths in the area, and people downstream from the tar sands are becoming sick, the Canadian government has still failed to set up adequate water monitoring systems. In addition to poisoning the water, the tar sands industry is consuming water at an alarming rate despite efforts to increase water recycling. The water pollution and overconsumption will only get worse if the tar sands industry has its way and is allowed to build more pipelines and increase tar sands production; these impacts must be taken into consideration when making decisions about Keystone XL and other proposed tar sands pipelines.

Industry groups have made efforts to conceal these serious impacts. The report released today debunks the greenwash and puts several reality checks on the tar sands industry. Some facts that should be considered in making decisions about whether it’s a good idea to promote tar sands expansion by approving more tar sands pipelines:

  • Tailings lakes currently cover more than 65 square miles in open lakes and leak more than 3 million gallons of toxic waste every day. To put that in context, that’s like 5 Olympic size swimming pools of toxic waste getting dumped into the Athabasca River and watershed daily.
  • Toxic contaminants in tailings lakes include chemicals like hydrocarbons, naphthenic acids, ammonia, mercury, arsenic and lead, which are by-products of tar sands extraction. This is what industry claims to be just water, clay, sand and some residual oil that with investment and innovation will settle faster and allow for reclamation sooner.  
  • There is no enforcement of existing regulations for the management of these toxic waste lakes. In fact, until 2009, tailings treatment and management was voluntary. Alberta finally passed Directive 074 to curb growth in tailings, but from 2011 to 2012, not a single company was in compliance with these rules yet there have been no penalties for oil companies for their failure to comply with the regulation.
  • Even Environment Canada has said that the water monitoring system for the Athabasca region “did not deliver data of sufficient quantity or quality to detect or quantify the effects of oilsands development.”
  • Despite there not being enough data about water quality in the tar sands region, scientists have found that in lakes as far as 50 miles from the tar sands, there are 2.5 to 23 times more pollutants than there were in 1960 before tar sands development began. We also know that First Nations have cited numerous cases of fish with growth deformities and other abnormalities.
  • Tar sands operations used nearly 45 billion gallons of water in 2011. To put that in context, that’s more than 180 Olympic-sized swimming pools… EVERY DAY.
  • There are no requirements for tar sands companies to stop withdrawing from the Athabasca River, even during low flow periods when fragile aquatic habitats are at risk. Because of climate change, the water flow in the Athabasca River is expected to decrease by 30 percent by 2050, so the lack of water withdrawal limits is concerning.
  • More than 95 percent of the water drawn from the Athabasca River is too polluted to place back into the natural cycle (although an unfortunate amount of the highly polluted water seeps back in from the toxic tailings ponds).
  • If industry and the Canadian government succeed in their goal of tripling tar sands production between 2010 and 2030, freshwater use will increase by 170 percent.

In short, don’t believe the industry spin: the tar sands industry and the Canadian government are failing to manage water resources responsibly. It is critical that the United States see through the greenwashing efforts of the tar sands industry and the Canadian government and reject the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline. Approving Keystone XL or other tar sands pipelines would make the United States complicit in these unsustainable water withdrawals and the reckless spewing of toxic pollutants into the Athabasca River and watershed.

Tar sands water usage square FINAL.jpg

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Switchboard is the staff blog of the Natural Resources Defense Council, the nation’s most effective environmental group. For more about our work, including in-depth policy documents, action alerts and ways you can contribute, visit NRDC.org.

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