Report: Tar Sands Tailing Ponds Hold Hidden Costs, a Legacy of Cancer Risks

We’ve written about how the proposed tar sands oil pipeline expansion across northern Minnesota would run through the Mississippi headwaters region, threaten our lakes and streams, and violate treaty rights.

Those reasons should be more than enough to stop the project. But we should remember, too, the incredible damage tar sands mining does in Canada and particularly to First Nation’s peoples there.

The immediate issue is the proposed expansion and rerouting of Enbridge Line 3 through Minnesota, one of several tar sands crude oil pipelines coming out of Alberta. (See previous blogs.)

A recent report from  Canada’s Environmental Defence and the U.S.’s National Resource Defense Council provides some alarming data about the impacts of tar sands mining in general and why we should deny the Line 3 permit.

Tar sands mining requires intensive water use and creates toxic tailing ponds. These tailing ponds recently topped 1 billion liters (more than 300 billion gallons) and growing, the report said. These tailing ponds include: arsenic, benzene, lead, and mercury and pose long-term health risks and hidden costs.

As the report describes, tar sands mining requires a process to extract the heavy bitumen from the surrounding sand and clay.

Industry uses hot water and chemicals to separate the bitumen from the slurry of other materials. It then skims off the bitumen and pumps the remaining waste slurry into tailings ponds. Every barrel of oil sands extracted adds 1.5 barrels of liquid waste to Alberta’s tailing ponds …

These ponds are leaking into the groundwater and the Athabasca River and are harming communities downstream from mining operations, the report said. According to government studies, water tests downstream from mining sites found mercury, lead, and other pollutants at levels exceeded federal and provincial guidelines for the protection of aquatic life.

These toxins are then consumed by fish and wildlife. It can have harmful effects on communities, such as Fort Chipewyan, a community of mostly First Nation’s peoples, who rely heavily on fish and game for food. According to the report:

Studies commissioned by the Canadian and Alberta governments found unusually high rates of cancer among the community of Fort Chipewyan. In 2014, researchers determined that Fort Chipewyan members’ consumption of traditionally-caught fish and meat were linked to these high cancer rates.

The report also raises concerns that Canadian taxpayer will ultimately get stuck with the clean-up bill.

Without a clear pathway to ensure that the oil industry is internalizing this increasing liability, Albertan taxpayers could ultimately be held responsible for paying the majority of the estimated $44.5 billion in anticipated tailings clean-up costs (as of the end of 2016). This total does not include the estimated $6.8 billion needed for land reclamation and additional costs (not estimated) for water treatment and ongoing monitoring and maintenance. The potential taxpayer liability for tailings cleanup alone now exceeds the $41.3 billion in royalties the province of Alberta has collected from the oil sands industry from 1970 to 2016.

It’s a fair question for Minnesota, too. If and when Enbridge closes its doors, who will pay for any pipeline clean-up costs?

Read the full report.

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