Alberta Tar Sands Site Has Been Leaking Oil for 9 Weeks – Situation Called "Uncommon"

Primrose bitumen spill
A photo provided by a government scientist shows the site of an oil spill in Cold Lake, Alberta. photo: The Toronto Star

Most US Americans don’t know about it (the news has barely earned a mention in our mainstream media outlets), but a site in Canada’s Alberta Tar (‘Oil’) Sands has been leaking now for some 9 weeks…with no signs of stopping, according to an anonymous government scientist speaking to the Toronto Star.

An investigating official from the Alberta Energy Regulator (AER) has called the situation “very uncommon.” As of Tuesday, the leak was on-going.

However, the owner of the Primrose site, Canadian Natural Resources Ltd, has issued a statement (published in Mother Jones), which reads in part:

“The areas have been secured and the emulsion is being managed with clean up, recovery and reclamation activities well underway. The presence of emulsion on the surface does not pose a health or human safety risk. The sites are located in a remote area which has restricted access to the public. The emulsion is being effectively cleaned up with manageable environmental impact.”

The statement goes on to say that wildlife deterrents are in place and monitoring of groundwater is on-going as well as aquatic and sediment sampling to “mitigate any potential impacts.”

However, an official at the AER has stated to Mother Jones that “60,000 pounds of contaminated vegetation” have been removed and dozens of animals (like loons and beavers) have died. The official also stated that some 26,000 barrels of “watery” bitumen have been removed from the site so far.

This use of the term “watery” is significant as it may indicate that the bitumen has come in contact with the water table (or aquifer).

The Primrose bitumen emulsion site — where the leak is occurring — is located about half way up along Alberta’s eastern border near Cold Lake (note: Canada is home to half the world’s fresh-water lakes).

Unlike more conventional (and damaging) tar sands mining operations, this one uses a newer, more “eco-friendly” technology called cyclic steam stimulation (CSS) that forces pressurized steam deep underground to loosen the thick, bitumen “tar’ and bring it to the surface. But critics say the process generates more CO2 than other methods.

At its peak, the operation pulls up about 100,000 barrels of bitumen oil per day. it is estimated that nearly 80% of the buried bitumen in the Tar Sands is only accessible through the CCS process.

Despite the everything-is-under-control official company statement, the same anonymous scientist (who also leaked photos of the spill) told a Toronto Star reporter:

“Everybody [at the company and in government] is freaking out about this. We don’t understand what happened. Nobody really understands how to stop it from leaking, or if they do they haven’t put the measures into place.”

To read more about this brewing eco-disaster, check out the July 23, Mother Jones article: ‘The Alberta Oil Sands Have Been Leaking for 9 Weeks’ by Thomas Stackpole

Top photo source: the Toronto Star via Mother Jones

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