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Further Impacts of CNRL Primrose’s Ongoing Bitumen Spills

September 25, 2013

Yesterday, Canadian Natural Resources Ltd. (CNRL) received permission from Alberta Environment and Sustainable Development (ESRD) to dewater most of a small lake that has been contaminated for several months by flowing bitumen. CNRL must try to contain one of the bitumen fissures created by CNRL’s high pressure oil sands steaming at its Primrose operations northeast of Edmonton.This latest step further reveals the risks to Alberta’s wetlands-rich northern boreal forest from mis-managing the very high pressures and heat of ‘in situ’ tar sands operations.

CNRL’s Primrose operation is situated on the Cold Lake Air Weapons Range, in an area of pre-existing geological weakness due to a collapsing salts formation located beneath the bitumen layer. Last week, independent scientists Kevin Timoney and Peter Lee criticized the Alberta Energy Regulator (AER) for allowing CNRL to resume high pressure steaming operations at Primrose when many risks remain unresolved from a 2009 bitumen spill to surface in a similar location as one of the 2013 spills.

Dewatering the small lake will further impact surrounding wetlands and wildlife. Because of this order, the silver lining is that there will be more transparency and stakeholder and First Nations involvement on the clean up and impacts at this site. There should be more transparency on the other 3 ongoing spill sites as well as on the broader causes and impacts of the spill.

The Primrose project should not re-commence at all because of geological and environmental risk. The pathway through the formations to surface is unknown, but AER points to possible pre-existing faults in the caprock as well as failures of well bore integrity. There are also unacceptable impacts to caribou and other sensitive wildlife such as old-growth-forest or wetlands dependent migratory birds from the multiple intensive oil sands projects in the area. At a minimum, Primrose should not restart until the following problems, and solutions to them, are documented publicly with third party review:

–    bitumen contamination of the fresh groundwater Bonnyville Aquifer

–    impacts to wetlands and uplands from all spill sites

–    wildlife mortality

–    the causes of the blowouts

–    a much stronger approach to preventing future blowouts

–    a much stronger approach to detecting and reducing impacts of any future blowouts

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