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Charges urged over alleged pollution in Athabasca River from oil sands companies

An oil-sands operation is shown on the shore of Athabasca River, near Fort McMurray, Alta., in September, 2011. The federal government should pursue charges against two energy companies, an environmental group says, after conducting a study that showed how oil-sands air pollution can find its way into the Athabasca River.

Jeff McIntosh/The Canadian Press

The federal government should pursue charges against two energy companies, an environmental group says after conducting a study that showed how oil-sands air pollution can find its way into the Athabasca River.

A digital projection by a scientist with Vancouver-based Ecojustice suggests particulate matter, which can contain toxic polycyclic aromatic compounds, from two oil-sands operations is falling to the ground and waterways.

The group says Ottawa should investigate because the Fisheries Act states that "no person shall deposit or permit the deposit of a deleterious substance of any type in water frequented by fish" – although some pollutants are exempted. "This is an issue that needs further investigation, and potential enforcement measures to be taken," said Melissa Gorrie, a staff lawyer with Ecojustice. "They have the legal obligation to look into this and ensure that the Athabasca River ... is being protected."

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Suncor Energy and Syncrude Canada have 36 stacks that release particulate emissions. Ecojustice looked at two. It used computer software, meteorological data and detailed government emissions data to create a digital model. Their analysis showed that within five kilometres of the Suncor stack, 219 tonnes were deposited in a year, most on snow that can carry pollutants into rivers. At Syncrude, 873 tonnes fell within a 13.5-kilometre radius in a year.

"What we're doing is we're saying, we can look at who is responsible" for toxins in the environment, said Elaine MacDonald, senior staff scientist with Ecojustice.

Industry argues that it is improving its performance. For example, from 2006 to 2009, Suncor emissions of sulphur dioxide, nitrogen oxides and volatile organic compounds grew from 81,600 to 128,100 tonnes per year. They have since fallen by 25 per cent, and the company has set a goal of cutting emissions to 75,000 tonnes by 2015.

Syncrude pointed out that it operates within provincially approved emissions limits, and is spending $1.6-billion to cut sulphur and particulate emissions from some facilities by 60 per cent. With particulates, "we're pretty diligent on making sure as much as possible we minimize those and remove them before they get released from the main stack," spokeswoman Cheryl Robb said. Several independent studies have shown oil sands-related pollution on the snowpack and lake sediments around Fort McMurray. In January, researchers said they had found rapidly rising levels of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, substances that can be carcinogenic, in lakes near oil sands development – although the lakes are no more polluted than an urban water body.

David Schindler, a well-known University of Alberta biologist, said the Ecojustice modelling "is excellent, as long as it is verified by real data. In this case, they appear to have used ours, and Environment Canada's unpublished work will also fit the modelled results well."

He said, however, that recent federal changes may make prosecution under the Fisheries Act difficult. Bill C-38 "stripped away much of the protective language of the habitat provisions, so it is hard to say," he said.

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About the Author
Asia Bureau Chief

Nathan VanderKlippe is the Asia correspondent for The Globe and Mail. He was previously a print and television correspondent in Western Canada based in Calgary, Vancouver and Yellowknife, where he covered the energy industry, aboriginal issues and Canada’s north.He is the recipient of a National Magazine Award and a Best in Business award from the Society of American Business Editors and Writers. More

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