Clean-up plans break the rules: Ecojustice

An environmental legal group is asking Alberta’s energy regulator to revoke its approval of an oilsands company’s plans to clean up toxic waste ponds.

CALGARY — An environmental legal group is asking Alberta’s energy regulator to revoke its approval of an oilsands company’s plans to clean up toxic waste ponds.

Syncrude Canada Ltd.’s (TSX:IMO) (TSX:COS) (TSX:NXY) tailings management plans for two projects in northern Alberta don’t meet rules laid out in 2009 by the Energy Resources Conservation Board, lawyer Larry Robinson said Tuesday.

Robinson, legal counsel for the environmental group Ecojustice, said the board’s own regulations call for fine soil particles in tailings to be cut in half by 2013. Yet the board approved tailings reduction plans in Syncrude’s Mildred Lake and Aurora North operations that fall well short.

“The Mildred Lake plan only predicts a reduction of 35 per cent, rather than 50 per cent by 2013,” Robinson said. “The Aurora plant actually only predicts a reduction of 11 per cent by 2013.”

While the Alberta government is spending millions to convince people that the province is working to clean up oilsands waste, regulators aren’t following through, Robinson said.

“It appears that those rules are not enforced; they’re more guidelines than rules, apparently.”

Applications to the board to reconsider decisions are often dismissed. If the board accepts this application it could schedule a hearing on the issue, Robinson said. If the application is rejected, it could be appealed in court.

Syncrude says it needs more time to meet the rules because cleaning up these fine soil particles will cost hundreds of millions of dollars, said board spokesman Davis Sheremata.

Because of that, they have given the company until 2014 to comply.

“These are both major industrial projects requiring the assembly of labour (and) materials to be able to get the company in compliance. Given the massive nature of their commitment, we felt the company was doing everything logically and reasonably possible to meet the requirements and we decided to give them another year to do it,” said Sheremata.

The lake-sized, waste-water ponds contain a poisonous brew of water, clay, leftover bitumen and heavy metals. Earlier this year, Syncrude was convicted under wildlife laws of causing the death of 1,600 ducks in one of its tailings pond

The ERCB estimates tailings ponds contain some 840 million cubic metres of waste and cover about 170 square kilometres.

Oilsands companies have agreed to invest more than $1.5 billion to meet the new tailings rules, Sheremata said.

The board has approached each oilsands project individually because the geology for each project varies and each company’s way of dealing with tailings may be different, Sheremata said.

“If we feel a company is doing everything it can and making the investment necessary to get their infrastructure in line with the directive, then we feel an approval is warranted.”

Cheryl Robb, a spokeswoman for Syncrude, said the company plans to exceed the board’s requirements on cleaning up tailings ponds by 2015.

Work began earlier this month on a commercial demonstration project at Mildred Lake that will use a centrifuge to spin water out of clay particles. The dried clay would then be used to fill in large mining pits.

She said it’s just one of several projects that are being developed.

Robb said implementing new technology is sometimes delayed because technologies that seem to work on a smaller scale or in a lab don’t work well in the field.

“When we do things in the oilsands, we have to make sure it will hold and be sustainable on the large scale,” Robb said.

Suncor Energy Inc. is the only oilsands producer that has filed a tailings management plan that will meet the 2013 deadline, said Simon Dyer, the oilsands program director for the Pembina Institute, an Alberta-based environmental think tank.

That suggests such plans can be achieved within the time frame that regulators have set out, he said. He questions why Syncrude and other companies aren’t being held to the same standard.

“We consider this to be an error and laws should not be negotiable,” Dyer said.

He said the board talked tough when it introduced its new tailings directive in February 2009 and promised to take action against companies that didn’t comply.

“There’s clearly a disconnect between what Albertans want and expect and what’s happening on the ground and it’s certainly an issue that needs much more scrutiny,” Dyer said.

Earlier this month, regulators also approved Imperial Oil Ltd.’s plan to deal with waste from its Kearl oilsands mine. The company must file a new plan by January 2012 outlining how it can speed up tailings reductions and must also go above and beyond the board’s requirements after 2018.

Robinson said they haven’t decided yet whether to also appeal that decision.

—By Lisa Arrowsmith in Edmonton