Five Months After Tar Sands Leaks Are Reported In Alberta, Company Ordered To Find Cause

CREDIT: CNRL/Emma Pullman



Alberta is ordering Canadian Natural Resources (CNRL), the company responsible for a series of ongoing tar sands leaks that were reported in May, to find the cause of the leaks — something the company has failed to do since the four leaks were reported five months ago.

The province is also ordering CNRL to test for groundwater contamination near the site of the leaks, one of which is occurring directly below a lake on the Primrose tar sands operation in northeastern Alberta. Right now, the company is in the process of draining the lake so it can attempt to stop the leak, something it was ordered to do a month ago by the Alberta government.

Meanwhile, little has been done to stop the other three leaks besides surrounding them with barriers to keep the oil from going into the forest. As of September 11, the leaks have spilled more than 403,900 gallons of bitumen onto the surrounding landscape, and two beavers, 49 birds, 105 amphibians and 46 small mammals have been killed. The directive from the Alberta government dictates immediate action, however, and a CNRL spokesperson told the Edmonton Journal that the company is planning on complying with the order completely.

Other than the enforcement order from Alberta, which will hopefully lead to the discovery of the cause of the leaks, three other investigations are planned into the leaks. Alberta’s department of Environment and Sustainable Resource Development will look into the overall environmental impacts of the spill, including whether the spill impacted groundwater; the Alberta Energy Regulator will investigate the cause of the leaks; and Environment Canada will look into how the leaks impacted wildlife.

But some Canadians, particularly those belonging to the First Nations, want more to be done in light of the spills. They want the entire process of in situ mining, the kind going on at the Primrose operation, to be more heavily scrutinized. Deron Bilous, a member of Alberta’s Legislative Assembly, told the Edmonton Journal that the regulations for in situ mining are out of date — despite a major spill in 2009, they haven’t been updated since 1994. The in situ process has been called a more environmentally-friendly way to extract tar sands than the infamous open pit mining, because it doesn’t destroy the surrounding landscape. But because in situ mining occurs underground in a process similar to fracking, it’s extremely difficult — as evidenced by the ongoing leaks in Alberta — to stop leaks.

“We are concerned about this high pressure process, as some of those wells go half a kilometer down,” Walter Janvier, a councillor with the Cold Lake First Nations, said in August. “It’s not so much the surface spill, that can be cleaned up. But when you can’t control what happens underground, that’s a different story. We want an investigation that looks at all the technical data.”

Greenpeace Canada is also calling for more action on behalf of the Alberta government, saying that until the causes of leaks like those at the Primrose site were determined, Alberta should put a moratorium on all new tar sands development projects.