Alberta tar sands’ criminal assault on water, Athabasca River

by: Obert Madondo  | Published Feb 27, 2014

A new study by Environment Canada confirms what First Nations and environmentalists have been telling us all along: the Alberta tar sands are increasingly becoming a threat to our water sources.

The Toronto Star reports: “New federal research has confirmed that water from vast oilsands tailings ponds is leaching into groundwater and seeping into the Athabasca River. Previous studies using models have estimated the leakage at 6.5 million litres a day from a single pond.

“But the Environment Canada study used new technology to actually fingerprint the mix of groundwater chemicals in the area. It found the mix of chemicals from tailings is different from that in naturally occurring bitumen deposits.”

The study, which was published in the journal Environmental Science and Technology, confirms that tailings are contaminating the Athabasca River and groundwater around tar sands operations.

Tailings are a waste by-product of tar sands operations, which include water, residual bitumen, heavy metals, salts, sand, clay and numerous toxic compounds.

The tailings toxins are a criminal assault on the Athabasca River, the environment and First Nations communities in the tar sands region. A criminal assault that’s bound to escalate.

According to the Pembina Institute, a national organization dedicated to advancing clean energy solutions through innovative research, education, consulting and advocacy, tar sands mining uses “three times as much fresh water as conventional oil production.”

Last June, Pembina released a study that forecast the environmental impact of the expansion of the tar sands operations on greenhouse gas emissions, freshwater consumption, and tailings productions.

According to the study, tailings ponds currently cover 176 square kilometres. The ponds contain 830 million cubic metres of tailings waste. Enough waster to cover “the entire city of Vancouver to a depth of over 7 metres.”

It’s only the beginning.

“But regulators have already approved 2.4 million barrels per day of oilsands mining, and each barrel of bitumen produced from mining results in the production of about 1.5 barrels of mature fine tailings,” says the Pembina Institute. “Accordingly, approved minable production would produce 1.4 billion barrels of mature fine tailings, and by 2022, oilsands mining is expected to produce enough toxic liquid tailings to submerge New York’s Central Park to a depth of just over 11 feet every month.”

The Pembina study predicts that by 2022, the tar sands mining operations’ daily freshwater use would be about 4,861,389 barrels. Or the equivalent of 4.8 million filled-up bathtubs.

The Athabasca River is the primary source of fresh water for the tar sands operations.

So far, the energy industry doesn’t seem to have a convincing method to contain the damage. At least according to the Pembina Institute.

It’s an assault that has the full blessing of the Conservative government of Prime Minister Stephen Harper. The Conservatives recently implemented a series of energy industry-friendly pieces of legislation, including the Canadian Environmental Assessment Act and Navigable Waters Protection Act (now the Navigation Protection Act). These changes have resulted in the removal of “protections from 99 per cent of lakes and rivers in Canada” and fast-tracking of environment-harming energy projects.

Obert Madondo is an Ottawa-based progressive blogger, and the founder and editor of The Canadian Progressive. Follow him on

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Obert Madondo

Publisher and editor
Obert Madondo is an Ottawa-based independent journalist and progressive political blogger. He's the publisher and editor of The Canadian Progressive.