Court case claims Suncor tailings pond leaking into Athabasca

Court case claims Suncor tailings pond leaking into Athabasca
Tony Boschmann, an environmental investigator, claims an underflow of water into the Athabasca River matches the chemical profile of a nearby tailings pond.Photo: Meagan Wohlberg.

A handful of concerned citizens in the Fort McMurray area have launched legal action against Suncor Energy Ltd. over allegations that process-affected water is leaking directly into the Athabasca River from one of its tailings ponds.

Tony Boschmann, an environmental investigator from McMurray, is leading a formal information suit with the hope that a judge will charge the oilsands company this September under the Fisheries Act for releasing a “deletorious substance” into the Athabasca when the case goes to court.

The investigator, who spent the last three years looking for a link between the process-affected water contained in the tailings ponds and groundwater coming into the Athabasca River, said he found that location last November and began sampling for levels of ions, naphthenic acids and PAHs.

What he found, he said, is a 12-15,000 square-metre underflow of water into the river chemically consistent to the tailings adjacent to Suncor’s “south tailings pond” and “pond AA” – 32 square kilometres of out-of-pit tailings ponds.

“This perception that is portrayed over and over again is they’re holding this water in, they’re storing all this water, but when you really start to look at it you go, how could they actually stop water from leaking from this type of facility when you’ve built it next to a river, on sloping ground, with all this porous geology? How could they stop it? So we investigated that, and we’re finding that the fundamental engineering to operate these really important structures properly is to get rid of water,” Boschmann told The Journal.

Boschmann’s team, which includes Ian Peace – a former employee of Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation (ACFN) – found the 6,000 square-metre sample area on the river last November with the help of traditional land-users.

“We let the river tell us where to go look. We went looking for a leak. We took some traditional, First Nation knowledge about ice development and the formation of ice and how it wasn’t developing properly in some spots, and they thought it was spring-like conditions where there was water entering. So we watched the river one November, watching the ice formation, and one particular spot took an additional month to freeze than the rest of the river. There was no natural explanation, so we spent the next three years figuring out why,” he said.

Using a groundwater piezometer, typically used on dry land, the team pounded the 22-foot long “hypodermic needle” five feet into the sand below the swiftly flowing river to collect samples.

“We wanted a fingerprint of process-affected water, and one of the most common constituents of process-affected water is the ions, the salts, the sodium and chloride and sulfates and iron and potassium and calcium – those sorts of things. And they’re very common – prevalent, in fact – in process-affected water. They actually occur naturally, but they get focused when you take this oilsands ore and then wash it. Everything that’s in the ore gets concentrated in the water and suspended in the column,” he said.

Compared to the electrical conductivity of the river water in the area, which was measured at around 300, Boschmann got readings of 10,400 from his sample water.

Ions like sodium, chloride, potassium, sulfates, iron and calcium were much higher, as well. In the river background, chlorides and sodium were in the 15-20 mg/L range, whereas in the samples chloride was detected at 3,300 mg/L and sodium at 2,800 mg/L.

Boschmann said the problem with the soundness of the tailings pond is that it was constructed on a 2 km-wide and 50 metre-deep underground glacial meltwater channel, and the sand dykes – the most critical portion of the pond’s structural integrity – on top of the deepest and most porous part of the channel.

“If you’re trying to hold water in, it’s the worst place. If you’re building a tailings pond to release water, it’s the best place,” he said.

Boschmann’s challenge will be heard in court on Sept. 12. He’s being assisted by lawyer Melissa Daniels, an ACFN member.

Suncor did not respond to requests for comment as of press time.

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