Trudeau Government Ignores Scandal of Toxic ‘Tailings Ponds’

Tailings pond remediation expert Regan Boychuk says industry giants have been given 70 years to clean up contamination that scientists say is currently damaging the environment and causing soaring cancer rates in indigenous communities downstream

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Story Transcript

D. LASCARIS: This is Dimitri Lascaris for The Real News, reporting from Montreal, Canada. The Alberta oil sands industry has created some of the world’s biggest waste dumps, called “tailings ponds.” These so-called tailings ponds might be more accurately described as toxic lakes. They’re comprised of water, sand and bitumen oil left over from the heating extraction process that is required to separate bitumen from sand. These toxic lakes occupy approximately 97 square miles and hold up to 340 billion gallons of waste. Together they pose a grave threat to waterways and the broader environment, as well as to indigenous communities based downstream.

Recently the Alberta Energy Regulator approved plans for industry giants Suncor Energy and Canadian Natural Resources to effectively avoid cleaning up their tailings waste for decades to come. Critics say that taxpayers may end up paying the costs, estimated conservatively at Can$27 billion. With us to discuss this, I’m pleased to be joined by Regan Boychuk. Regan is an independent researcher in Calgary, Alberta, with a focus on the oil and gas industry. He was appointed to the Oil Sands Expert Group advising the current government’s 2015 royalty review, and is the co-founder of Reclaiming Alberta’s Future Today, a new organization raising awareness and advancing solutions to meet the enormous challenge of unfunded oil field liabilities in Alberta. Regan joins us today from Calgary. Thank you very much for joining us today.

REGAN BOYCHUK: It’s good to be here. Thanks for having me.

D. LASCARIS: Regan, is there evidence that toxins are leaking into the Athabasca River or into surrounding areas from the tailings ponds?

REGAN BOYCHUK: There absolutely is. There is both independent, university based research, published in the most prestigious scientific journals, as well as we have documents from federal scientists, government scientists, that point to the exact same phenomenon, where we have an enormous amount of toxic tailings ponds and enormous unlined ponds, and not surprisingly, there has been considerable leakage over many, many years.

D. LASCARIS: Does the current government of Justin Trudeau acknowledge this reality, or does it deny that toxins are leaking into the Athabasca River?

REGAN BOYCHUK: The current government takes the traditional stand that there’s no way to tell current levels of contamination above the natural occurrence that seeps into the water, but that’s contradicted by both federal government scientists and independent research.

D. LASCARIS: Now, please talk about the Suncor Energy and Canadian Natural Resources cleanup plans that were just approved by the Alberta Regulator. Do you consider those plans adequate, and if not, what do you see as the principal flaws in the plans?

REGAN BOYCHUK: Well, the principal flaw has been consistent throughout the history of the oil sands. It is to allow development and hope for a technological silver bullet to one day be delivered. The plan that was recently approved from Suncor relates to their original, the original tailings pond. It’s 50 years old, and they just submitted a plan, which is going to allow them another 15 years before they start to clean it up. They’ve proposed to use as yet untested technology and have been granted another 70 years after 2033 to finally clean up the world’s first oil sands tailings pond. So it’s an incredibly long period of time, still based on the hope that one day we will discover the technology to solve this problem, and in the meantime, development continues apace.

D. LASCARIS: And in the interim, I understand that the First Nation communities in the vicinity of these tailings ponds are experiencing adverse health effects. Can you talk to us about what the evidence shows in terms of the health effects on the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation and the Mikisew Cree First Nation who live downstream from tar sands extraction?

REGAN BOYCHUK: The First Nations in the area have been raising concerns and alarms about this for a very long time, to no avail. Despite all of their efforts over decades, they’ve been unable to get credible baseline research done on the contamination in their area. It came about a decade ago, there was a doctor in the area who blew the whistle on cancer rates, and industry and the media here in Alberta viciously attacked the doctor, along with the government, who dismissed his concerns, but were eventually quietly acknowledged by Alberta Health that there is increased cancer rates in the community. But the government still refuses to do the baseline study that First Nations have been demanding for so long. First Nations have taken it upon themselves to do their own research, together with researchers at the University of Manitoba, that show a lot of the problems that they’ve been suffering downstream from all of these tailings ponds.

D. LASCARIS: I understand the doctor … Are you referring to Dr. John O’Connor?

REGAN BOYCHUK: Yes.

D. LASCARIS: At the outset of our discussion, I noted that the estimated cleanup costs for tailings ponds is Can$27 billion. Do you consider that number to be a fair estimate of the total cost, and whatever the true cost may be, how should the government ensure that taxpayers don’t end up footing this gigantic bill after oil companies have extracted their gigantic profits?

REGAN BOYCHUK: Well, the number that the government uses is in no way credible. It comes nowhere near the actual scale of the problem. Even the industry’s own estimates are nearly twice that number. Total, out of France, estimates them to be about double that, around $50 billion, and there’s reason to believe that that is probably fairly conservative in itself, because there’s a failure in these kind of estimates to take into account the contamination, the leakage, the unknown. And we know from the conventional sector that those unknown spills and leaks, they make up about 75% of the cost in the conventional and the traditional oil and gas sector of cleanup. And those are the sort of unknowns that aren’t factored into these estimates.

And the way that the Regulator in Alberta manages these systems is they use a assets-to-liability approach, and so they minimize what industry has to contribute to the eventual cleanup early in the projects and leave it to the last moments of these projects for the money to be collected. By inflating the assets, which they do on a significant level in the oil sands, they spare the industry having to put the money up for cleanup before the end of the project, and they delayed the eventual time when they have to put that forward.

The Auditor General in Alberta in July 2015 looked at the Mine Financial Security Program and found it extremely wanting, noted a number of problems with it, including the inflated assets, and noted that it’s important to recognize that the Regulator on behalf of Albertans has accepted the risk. If there is a downturn in prices, if there is a premature end to the oil sands, the public bears the risk of that. We are the ones. The system is basically set up to deny climate change, essentially. The regulatory programs don’t envision an end to the program, other these oil sands mines using up all of their reserves. It doesn’t see a collapse in prices. It doesn’t see a winding down of the industry. It sees them developing every reserves, proven and probable, at current profit levels, which is utterly absurd, and it leaves all of the risk of the cleanup on the Alberta public.

D. LASCARIS: In fact, I believe former NASA scientist James Hansen said that if all of those reserves were actually exploited, it would be game over for the climate. Isn’t that correct?

REGAN BOYCHUK: Yeah, there is more than 170 billion barrels of oil in the oil sands, and they’re not all ever going to be produced, but that is the scale. That’s what industry is striving for, is to financialize and produce as many of those barrels as possible, and the regulatory programs facilitate that while leaving the risk of, if they don’t do that, then the public is going to be short the money for an enormous, enormous scale cleanup that comes at the end.

D. LASCARIS: Now, the tar sands industry likes to talk a great deal about land reclamation. For example, one of the major tar sands producers, Suncor, has been touting that it has successfully transformed a tailings pond into a 220-hectare watershed, capable of supporting plants and wildlife. What does the industry truly mean by the term “land reclamation”, and what proportion of the land where tar sands extraction has occurred has actually been successfully reclaimed thus far?

REGAN BOYCHUK: The industry, when it refers to reclamation or when it says that it has reclaimed land to this or that standard, they’re talking about something different than the laws and regulations. What reclamation actually means, and to be certified at the end of the process as actually reclaimed, is something quite different than when industry talks about these large areas that they’ve done some of the reclamation work and created something resembling a natural environment. In reality there’s only about 1% of the land that’s ever been developed that has been certified reclaimed and returned. It’s a infinitesimally small amount.

Most of the oil sands region is still under development. It’s a relatively young industry. It’s really grown enormously over the last 20 years. Many of the projects are being developed, operating, and so eventual cleanup is far down the road, but what has happened so far is a tiny fraction of about 1 percent has met the actual standards that they all started out knowing that they had to meet. And so a lot of the numbers that the industry uses are for partial and incomplete reclamation, rather than certified reclamation at the end.

D. LASCARIS: Lastly, I understand that SumOfUs, a global consumer watchdog group, has launched a petition demanding that Suncor adopt a more aggressive timeline to clean up these tailings ponds. Are there any pending legal or other actions besides that one, the SumOfUs petition, to challenge what seems to be a growing, potentially extremely burdensome and unaddressed environmental cleanup?

REGAN BOYCHUK: I’m not personally aware of any, but as action against climate change picks up, and there is increasing momentum in Canada looking towards the American model of class action lawsuit against especially the fossil fuel majors, many of which are operating in the oil sands, to hold them accountable for the costs. To the extent that those make progress, they increase the already enormous risk of these industries being wound down before they produce the last barrel that they would like to, and that leaves the public on the hook. We won’t be able to collect the money for cleanup from bankrupt companies, and there’s an important court case going to the Supreme Court this year in Canada directly related to that.

The industry, since the new government in Alberta was elected in 2015, has been advancing the legal case that in bankruptcy they can disown anything they like, any contaminated land, anything that’s not economical. They can disown it. Eventually, that’s going to be left to the public. If that case is successful … I think there’s a very good chance it could be defeated. It won at both levels in Alberta, but the Supreme Court has the opportunity to right that wrong, but if that is upheld, that means that the companies can simply disown any mess they like, keep everything of value, the banks can sell it off to pay themselves back, and it represents an enormous risk to not just the Alberta public, because that precedent applies to the rest of the country, not just to Alberta or oil and gas, but to every polluter. Every pulp mill, every factory in Canada will be able to disown contamination, walk away, the banks can sell everything of value, and the mess will be left to the public.

D. LASCARIS: This has been Dimitri Lascaris, speaking to Regan Boychuk, an independent oil and gas industry researcher, and we’ve been talking about the need to clean up massive toxic tailings ponds in Northern Alberta. Thank you very much for joining us today, Regan.

REGAN BOYCHUK: Thank you.

D. LASCARIS: And this is Dimitri Lascaris for The Real News.