Air & Water Issues


Tar sands uses an immense amount of water and creates a massive pollution problem

  • 95% of fresh water used is not returned to the natural environment
  • 11M litres of toxic tailings water leaks into the boreal forest every day
  • Air quality limits were exceeded 1,500 times in 2007

Governments have failed to live up to promises or enforce regulations to manage pollution

The rapid expansion of the tar sands is creating a world-class pollution problem. Industry uses as much fresh water as a large Canadian city and almost none of it is returned to the natural environment. Ninety-five per cent of this water is so polluted it has to be stored in toxic sludge pits that cover 176 square kilometres, held back by two of the three largest dams on the planet. An estimated 11 million litres of toxic wastewater leaks into the Athabasca River every day.

Tar sands oil production also emits twice as much air pollution as conventional oil, which contributes to acid rain and emits significant amounts of heavy metals and other toxic pollutants to the region's lakes and rivers.

Producing a barrel of tar sands oil creates more than twice as much nitrogen oxides and sulphur dioxide emissions as a barrel of conventional oil. Every year, tar sands operations spew into the air more than 45,000 tonnes of nitrogen oxides, 115,000 tonnes of sulphur dioxide, and 74,000 tonnes of volatile organic compounds. According to Environment Canada, tar sands pollution exceeded Alberta’s already weak air quality objectives more than 1,500 times in 2007, 47 times more than in 2004.

Nitrogen oxides and sulphur dioxide are major contributors to acid rain, which acidify lakes and streams and damage trees and sensitive forest soils. Volatile organic compounds such as benzene are known carcinogens. When combined together, nitrogen oxides and volatile organic compounds react to form ground-level ozone, or smog, which contributes to climate change.

Many of these pollutants return to earth to pollute the region’s rivers and streams, and leaking tailings ponds are polluting groundwater reserves. Recent research indicates that tar sands pollutants considered toxic and/or carcinogenic are accumulating in surface and ground water downstream from tar sands development. One recent study found concentrations 2.5 to 23 times higher in lake sediments than they were 50 years ago. These pollutants are dangerous to human and animal health at very low concentrations.

The majority of the water used by the tar sands industry is taken from the Athabasca River, which flows into the Peace-Athabasca Delta, recognized as one of the most important wetlands in the world. Water licenses allow current and proposed tar sands projects to withdraw as much as 15 per cent of the Athabasca River’s water flow during its lowest flow periods. As climate change reduces the amount of water in the river during the winter, these massive water withdrawals will reduce the amount of fish habitat and significantly undermine the health of the river’s ecosystem.

As tar sands development expands, so, too, will pollution. Water withdrawals and pollution will inevitably increase to dangerous and unsustainable levels, poisoning what’s left of the ground and surface waters. Preventing the expansion of the tar sands, and eventually phasing this dirty source of energy out is the only way to ensure that impacts to air and water in the region do not continue to exceed safe thresholds.

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