By Mike De Souza, Postmedia News November 15, 2010
Water, bitumen, clay and chemicals from the Horizon oilsands project are stored in a tailings pond which local natives say is being freely accessed by animals.
OTTAWA — Environment Canada is sending inspectors to investigate allegations of a leak in an oilsands tailings pond, Environment Minister John Baird said Monday.
Although a provincial regulator immediately denied that any leak had taken place in the Horizon oilsands project in northern Alberta, Baird said he was taking the matter seriously.
“Obviously, we’re tremendously concerned,” Baird said after question period in the House of Commons. “I spoke to my deputy minister about this issue earlier. Environment Canada officials will be on the ground (Tuesday) to get a first-hand look and commence an investigation if necessary.
“Water quality is important to the government as is migratory birds and fish habitat and wildlife. So we’re looking into it directly.”
The allegations of the leak on the site operated by Canadian Natural Resources Ltd. (CNRL) were first reported by CBC News, but they prompted criticism from the Energy Resources Conservation Board (ERCB).
“There is no tailings release at the CNRL pond,” said the provincial regulator in a statement. “The tailings pond and the stream lie at the bottom of a natural depression and all water in the area flows into the pond, not out of it.”
The report suggested that the western edge of the pond was not properly contained, and could potentially contaminate the food chain without a barrier to prevent animals from drinking the water.
But the board said the pond was inspected two weeks ago and again on Monday, concluding that it was in compliance with provincial regulations.
“The CBC never called the ERCB to check any facts in the story before running it,” said the regulator. “The ERCB is following up with the CBC to get the story corrected.”
Matt Price, campaigns director at Environmental Defence Canada — an environmental research group — said the board’s response is misleading, since the company has already acknowledged in public reports that the tailings ponds are leaking into groundwater beneath the surface.
“That’s the semantics of this,” Price said. “They will say: ‘Even though we’re losing stuff out of the bottom of the pond, it doesn’t matter.'”
Meantime, Baird noted that a special federal advisory panel is also continuing its review of the monitoring process by regulators and will soon report back to government.
“So that’s something we want to get the facts (on) immediately, and if an investigation and charges are warranted, that will be done,” Baird said.
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