Thousands of industrial incidents raise serious concerns about toxic oil industry

Feature story - July 30, 2010
Greenpeace Canada, Sierra Club Prairie, Keepers of the Athabasca and Global Forest Watch Canada today released two databases compiled by prominent scientist Dr. Kevin Timoney, one with more than 6,500 incidents, regarding tar sands operations that raise serious concerns about how the Alberta government allows oil companies to operate in this province.

© Greenpeace / John Woods: The Alberta Tar Sands produce over 480 million gallons of toxic sludge every day, leaking dangerous chemicals into nearby soil and water.

One database contains 6,665 incidents, covering December 1995 to August 2008, involving air, water, and land releases, failures to report, and problems with monitoring. These data, gathered through Freedom of Information and Privacy (FOIP) requests, are a compilation of Alberta government records of environmental incidents including releases of hydrogen sulphide, sulphur dioxide, spills, problems with tailings ponds, water quality exceedences, and more. This information has never before been released to the public.

Dr. Timoney submitted the FOIP requests, compiled the data, and provided guidelines for other researchers to use the datasets in a brief report.

In addition to the 6,665 “routine disclosure” incidents, the datasets and reports also include three additional sources of data: industry and government reports; Department of Fisheries and Oceans Harmful Alteration, Disruption, or Destruction (HADD) of fish habitat permits; and bird and wildlife mortality data. The databases include mentions of dense smoke blocking the sun, a brown smudge across the sky every morning, frequent health issues for workers, and an incident where chlorine gas flowed over work camps causing worker’s eyes to burn and respiratory distress. Two work camps with 2,000 to 3,000 workers were affected.

A second database of 180 entries was compiled from Alberta Environment records and data including reports on air, water, wastewater, and groundwater monitoring, consultant reports, and correspondence.

The 180 entries indicate a chronic lack of enforcement by the government. Troubling evidence shows that the oil industry has released water with high oil and grease concentration into the Athabasca River due to a “sampling malfunction” without so much as a slap on the wrist from the government. Failure of government to enforce regulations is also evident in the data. The government has turned a blind eye to extended periods of release and delayed response times — in one incident, sour water was released into a tailings pond resulting in high hydrogen sulphide levels in the air for nearly six days.

“The databases serve as an example of the government’s failure to uphold the public trust,” said Dr. Timoney. “If the databases prove useful, they may in some small way contribute to replacing a culture of impunity with one of responsibility. When Albertans decide they will no longer tolerate bad government, things will get better. Until then, corporations may continue to pollute at will, sure in the knowledge that they operate outside meaningful controls and are immune from prosecution.”

Dr. Kevin Timoney is encouraging researchers and other users to familiarize themselves with the databases and use the data as a basis for further research. He also recommends that independent audits of Alberta Environment and Sustainable Resources Development be conducted to examine policies and practices in the context of relevant legislation and fiduciary obligation.

“These reports show that the oil industry continues to set the rules in this province. It is our hope that these datasets will help substantiate the claims of local communities and workers who are often left without any recourse when exposed to emissions and contaminants from degraded air and water due to a toxic tar sands industry”, said Melina Laboucan-Massimo, climate and energy campaigner with Greenpeace. “These data indicate a legacy of mismanagement and a lack of oversight by a government that seems more interested in public relations than in addressing the toxic legacy the tar sands are imposing on Albertans.”

Several environmental and social justice groups contributed funding for the research.

Further documents on tar sands incidents:

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