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No charges laid against Suncor over Athabasca River spill, document says

Suncor Oil Sands operation, near where officials were seen taking samples for the Athabasca River, following a pipeline carrying industrial waste water ruptured, Tuesday, March, 26, 2013 in Fort McMurray,Alberta.

Brett Gundlock/ Boreal Collectiv/The Globe and Mail

The federal government investigated an oil sands company that reported releasing water that had failed toxicity tests into a major river, but closed the file without charges or penalty, a newly released document shows.

The problems at Suncor Energy Inc.'s facility persisted and led to at least 39 more failed tests and a reprimand from the Alberta government, raising questions about why the federal government backed away.

Suncor's permits allowed it to release processed wastewater into the Athabasca River, over which the federal government has some jurisdiction, as long as it met a quality threshold. A routine company test on March 21, 2011, revealed a failure to meet "acute lethality" standards, according to a provincial enforcement order. Suncor reported the problem and shut down the flow on March 24.

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Environment Canada was notified that day and began an investigation, which it closed in November, according to a government document released this week in response to a question from Liberal MP Francis Scarpaleggia.

"Information gathered during this investigation has determined that Suncor has been operating their wastewater system diligently and that the March 21, 2011, incident could not have been reasonably foreseen. Consequently, no charges were laid against Suncor," said the document, a statement from Environment Minister Leona Aglukkaq.

It is unclear how much wastewater went in the river. Suncor spokeswoman Sneh Seetal said an external review found the "likelihood of the effect to the river was limited."

The undiluted wastewater failed the tests because too many fish died when put in it, the provincial document said. Aboriginal communities fish in the Athabasca. The federal Fisheries Act prohibits depositing a "deleterious substance of any type in water frequented by fish." In a statement Friday, Environment Canada said Suncor discharged "deleterious effluent" in the March, 2011, incident.

The Alberta government in March, 2013, issued its enforcement order against Suncor. It indefinitely barred release of the wastewater into the river, a ban that remains in effect. The order also noted "the source of the toxicity is still unknown."

Ms. Seetal said the company, once it found the problem, "immediately took steps to close the outfall, shut in the treated wastewater plant and re-route the water to a tailings pond on site ... nevertheless, any release of water that does not meet the regulated requirements is unacceptable to us."

An Environment Canada statement to The Globe confirmed an investigator visited the Suncor site before the file was closed. "Environment Canada worked co-operatively with its provincial partners on this case. However, each government is responsible for administering its own acts and regulations," it said.

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The wastewater would pass "acute lethality testing" if more than half the fish exposed to it survive. Suncor failed 39 such tests during the provincial investigation, the enforcement order said. Despite testing being done at "100 per cent wastewater concentration," there was "chronic toxicity" noted at just 2.5 per cent concentration, the provincial enforcement order says.

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About the Author
Parliamentary reporter

Josh is a parliamentary reporter in Ottawa. Before moving to the nation's capital in 2013, he covered provincial affairs in Edmonton and throughout Alberta. He joined the Globe in 2008 in Toronto before returning to his home province in 2010. More

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