On Friday the Energy Resources Conservation Board (ERCB), the Alberta government’s industry regulator, released a report stating that tar sands companies have failed to comply with pre-existing agreements to limit the amount of water used in tar sands extraction and processing as well as the amount of polluted water that ends up in the region’s growing toxic tailings ponds.
The release of the report coincides with massive floods near Fort McMurray, wreaking havoc on the city’s infrastructure. Since Friday the region has seen between 80 and 180mm of precipitation. Major highways have been closed, roads have been partially washed out, buildings flooded and homes evacuated. The city of Fort McMurray officially declared a state of emergency today, while unseasonably high temperatures prompt snow melt and rain is forecast to continue throughout the week.
The immediate question is apparent: what threat does the flooding pose to the massive tailings ponds lining the Athabasca River and the millions of litres of toxic contaminants they contain?
According to recent industry figures, tailings ponds, which hold the billions of litres of contaminated waste water used in bitumen extraction and processing, cover 176 square kilometres of the tar sands region.