Scientifically Valid Evidence of Oil Sand Tailings Contamination?

Posted by on Sep 17, 2020 in Blog | 0 comments

According to a report in the CBC, “An environmental watchdog says it has found ‘scientifically valid evidence’ that Alberta’s oilsands tailings ponds are contaminating groundwater sources.”

The group, Commission for Environmental Cooperation, did not elaborate on the specifics of this evidence in the CBC report, but the CBC report includes the 200-page report “Alberta Tailings Pond II.”

One section of the report is “State of the Science in Environmental Chemical Forensics for Distinguishing Natural and Anthropogenic Sources of Bitumen-impacted Water.”  Some of the conclusions in this section include, “Overall, there is strong evidence of OSPW (oil sands processed water) seepage into near-field groundwater around tailings ponds…There is generally less evidence that OSPW is reaching natural surface waters” (See our recorded Environmental Forensics Webinar for an introduction to this topic).

Tailing Ponds Were Intended to be Temporary

Environment and Climate Change Canada Minister, Jonathan Wilkinson, said in a video message, “The assumption with tailing ponds from the beginning was that they would be temporary so it was never intended that we would have these ponds existing in perpetuity…what this report says in some cases is there have been some releases of the substances, which is not supposed to happen…. Certainly, in the long term, we need to find solutions to how we are going to actually address these so we don’t have the tailing ponds there in the long term… that was never the intention.  We need to move forward to be sure we are putting in place technologies and regulations that allow us to, over time, get rid of the tailing ponds.”

Is there sufficient that tailings from the oil sands are impacting groundwater? Image Credit: OpenClipart-Vectors from Pixabay

Natural v. Anthropogenic Contamination

The CBC report also stated, “The Alberta government’s chief scientist, Garry Scrimgeour, said he’s still reviewing the report, noting it was just released and the government will ‘need to take the time to review it.’ ”

Scrimgeour also said that the latest science he’s familiar with is not conclusive whether it’s possible to distinguish between oilsands contaminants and chemicals naturally occurring in groundwater.

Pointing to the complexities of this site, Daniel Smith of Environment and Climate Change Canada said, “Whenever harmful substances were found, it was impossible for us with the science and technology available at that time to distinguish substances coming from processed water to those that may be naturally occurring in the groundwater.”

Multiple Lines of Evidence

Whether you are trying to distinguish natural v. anthropogenic contamination or Company A and Company B contamination, it can be a significant scientific challenge.  We’ve seen this many times over the years at sites on which we have worked.  The “obvious” source of contamination isn’t always the source.  To find the answer, you need to use scientific rigor and, in many cases, multiple lines of evidence to get to a defensible answer.  See our recent article, “Environmental Forensic Tools Help Answer Legal Groundwater Contamination Problems.”

If you would like more information about environmental forensics and how it might help you, please contact me at 519-948-7300, Ext. 114, and I’ll put you in touch with some of our specialists.

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