ottawa adopts faith based strategy for regulating tarsands

Naphthenic acid sounds like nasty stuff, but you gotta have faith it probably isn't as dangerous as you might think. The Harper government has exempted it from a list of industry-produced chemicals that could be toxic or harmful to the environment.

Naphthenic acid sounds like nasty stuff, but you gotta have faith it probably isn’t as dangerous as you might think.

The Harper government has exempted it from a list of industry-produced chemicals that could be toxic or harmful to the environment. And us.

Harper’s team has also left it off another list of substances that companies are required to track and report.

Essentially, naphthenic acid is now off the government’s radar.

Which is probably OK, especially if you don’t live in Alberta.

Naphthenic acid is a common pollut… whoops, “byproduct” of bitumen mining in the tarsands near Fort McMurray, Alberta.

It is found in tailings ponds that cover a 170-square-kilometre area along the Athabasca River, according to Andrew Nikiforuk, a writer and authority on the tarsands.

Environment Canada was not involved in the design of these tailings ponds because they don’t contain fish. But federal officials have said publicly the ponds don’t leak.

Scientists say otherwise.

James Barker, who works at the University of Waterloo, told the Standing Committee on Environment and Sustainable Development the ponds both leak and seep, allowing water used in tarsands development to flow into the Athabasca River at a rate of 67 litres per second.

George Dixon, another expert on naphthenic acids, told the same committee about two leaks from the tailings ponds into groundwater, and warned the Athabasca is now showing signs of “chemical inputs” from both natural bitumen deposits and industrial mining activity, according to Nikiforuk’s recent piece in the Tyee.

It’s hard to confirm such things, however.

About 300 pages of testimony from Dixon, Barker, Nikiforuk and dozens of others before the committee on the subject of the Impact of Oilsands Development on Present and Future Water Supplies have been abandoned.

On June 17, in a closed meeting, the committee decided to cancel its investigation into the tarsands development’s impact on water. And all copies of the committee’s draft report were shredded.

“They have all declined to provide details apart from explaining they failed to reach a consensus,” according to a report in the Ottawa Citizen.

Nikiforuk, who was asked to testify and who has combed through the 300 pages of testimony, suggests the industry is a huge polluter of the region’s water supply and that Ottawa, which once studiously monitored the Athabasca, has offloaded responsibility to the province, which has, in turn, given the responsibility to industry and, by doing so, has shrouded the data from independent analysis by scientists.

Alberta government officials refused to testify before the committee.

However, testimony from numerous scientists, environmentalists and industry experts suggested steaming the bitumen from the ground could impact an area the size of Florida, sucking water from unmapped ground aquifers that may extend into Manitoba and the NWT.

Ottawa has no idea what the impact of such a process will be on the aquifers.

And Ottawa has failed to issue national standards for regulating tarsands pollutants. Like naphthenic acids.

Those acids take decades to break down, are poisonous to aquatic organisms and have been shown to harm liver, heart and brain function in mammals.

The US government requires specific reporting requirements regarding the substance.

For now, Canada does not.

Which is probably OK.

Because naphthenic acids are probably not as nasty as their name suggests.

You gotta have faith.

Because the hard evidence is either not being collected, is being withheld from independent scientists by industry, or is being shredded by the politicians tasked with investigating the issue. (Richard Mostyn)