EDMONTON (CP) ó The toxic tailings ponds from Albertaís oilsands mines leak enough contaminated water into the regionís aquifers every day to almost fill five Olympic-sized swimming pools, according to a new analysis by two environmental groups.
And if all the oilsands projects now on the books are constructed, that contamination could grow nearly sevenfold and potentially leave a massive legacy of poisoned groundwater.
"This is one of the ominous parts of this," said Matt Price of Environmental Defence, who authored the report being released Tuesday. "It could very well take a generation for this stuff to show up. And by that time, you canít stop it."
But the director of oilsands environmental management for the Alberta government said the report makes several mistaken assumptions.
Oilsands tailings are created as hot water is used to separate bitumen from the sand and clay that holds it.
Between 2,000 and 2,500 litres of tailings are produced for every barrel of bitumen. Tailings ponds now cover about 130 square kilometres in the Fort McMurray area.
Those "ponds" are held in place by earthen dikes. Most of the leakage is captured by ditches, barriers or wells, but some water still escapes.
Price and analysts from the environmental think-tank Pembina Consulting collected data from oilsands companies themselves on how much water they expect is leaking from their tailings ponds.
The total was just over 11 million litres a day. Over the course of a year, thatís enough water to fill the Toronto Skydome 2 1/2 times. The tailings are known to be harmful, containing chemicals that are both toxic and carcinogenic. Studies have shown that wetlands irrigated with tailings water suffer increased mortality for birds and slower growth for plants. Last April, about 500 ducks died when they landed on one of the ponds.
But Preston McEachern of Alberta Environment says that most of the seepage from tailings ponds goes into aquifers so deep that they themselves are contaminated by flowing through the oilsands.
"Itís dirty water, just like process-affected water in tailings ponds," he said.