Alberta beset by lax enforcement of environmental rules — report by Gayathri Vaidyanathan, July 25, 2013, E&E News
Less than 1 percent of the violations by oil sands producers get penalized by regulators in Alberta, according to a new report put out by an environmental group that examined 9,000 environmental contamination cases in the province between 1996 and 2012. Over this period, oil sands facilities violated laws or their permit requirements at least 4,063 times, with two facilities — Syncrude Mildred Lake (46.95 percent) and Suncor Oil Sands (39.65 percent) — being major repeat violators. Some of these cases seriously threatened public health, said Kevin Timoney, a co-author of the report and a scientist with Treeline Ecological Research.
Yet, Alberta Environment and Sustainable Resource Development (AESRD) enforced the laws less than 1 percent of the time, according to the researchers. The enforcement rate in the United States is 16 percent when companies violate the Clean Water Act, according to the group.
“In [about] 99% of cases, the evidence indicates that although a contravention occurred, the incident was closed,” the report states. Financial penalties were usually about 4,500 Canadian dollars when the regulator chose to use its authority, the report says.
The AESRD disputed the report’s methodology, saying that the researchers relied on call logs, which contain phone records of violations without detailed information about enforcement. Timoney, however, said results were based on enforcement reports, put out every quarter by the AESRD, in addition to call logs, which he said underestimate of the number of infractions in Alberta. … The government agency has taken heat for a blowout at an oil sands facility in remote northern Alberta that has spilled bitumen for the past 10 weeks. … Out of the 4,063 violations reported, the AESRD enforced 37 cases with six prosecutions and nine warnings, the report says. In one case, an anonymous tip about bird deaths at a tailings pond owned by Syncrude resulted in a prosecution. But the regulator overlooked other, similar cases of bird deaths at tailing ponds.
“It might be argued that prosecutions are driven in large part by media disclosure and public outcry,” the report concludes.
AESRD also did not cancel, suspend or otherwise stop operations in any of the 9,262 cases of contamination examined by the study authors. Operators were routinely late in informing the authorities about spills and contamination. In one case of an alleged violation, Syncrude told regulators that it had been disposing of coke byproducts in soil removed during mining for two years. The company was not penalized. … Timoney recalled at least one case where contamination resulted in a significant public health threat that resulted in no enforcement. In 2007, a wastewater pond overflowed 10 million liters into the Athabasca River, and the waste headed downstream toward Fort Chipewyan. The public was not informed of the release until an anonymous whistle-blower disclosed it, Timoney said. Regulators closed the file without enforcement action.
Four years, thousands of pages, myriad errors: Alberta’s access to info needs work, report says by Leslie Young, July 23, 3013, Global News
When Global News requested a database of Alberta’s environmental incidents, it received hundreds of pages of printed-out records. A new report from two environmental groups slams the Alberta government for failing to provide “timely, accurate, error-free and complete information” on environmental incidents in the oilsands. The report, “Environmental Incidents in Northeastern Alberta’s Bitumen Sands Region,” published Tuesday, found that breaches of environmental regulations in the area are rarely enforced. It was originally intended to simply investigate those incidents, said Kevin Timoney, Principal Investigator at Treeline Ecological Research and co-author of the report with Peter Lee of Global Forest Watch Canada. But given the difficulties they experienced trying to obtain the information in the first place, “it ended up being a study of environmental incidents and the whole process of freedom of information,” said Timoney. Multiple requests for information over several years produced 1,700 printed pages, then thousands more pages of pdf files. Hours spent manually converting this back into database format showed numerous errors in the data, Timoney said. “It was extremely frustrating. I just reached a point where I was so frustrated I said, ‘I’m going to do whatever it takes to extract this information’ because I just felt wronged by the whole process,” he said. It just seems like it’s a process that’s designed not to release information but rather to appear to release information.”
Global News is seeking further comment from Alberta Environment on the particulars of the report and Timoney’s experience. According to the report, the researchers originally requested data from Alberta Environment and Sustainable Resource Development’s Environmental Management System in July, 2008. The response arrived in paper form: roughly 1,700 pages in total. Timoney made a second request in August, 2012. In this case the data was provided in an electronic Adobe PDF file format, about 3,500 pages. Providing data in paper form or in PDFs fulfills the government’s legal requirements to disclose information, but when large databases are disclosed in this manner, it makes them extremely tough to analyze – “unusable, basically,” Timoney said. The researchers hired a programmer to convert the information back into database format. Once they had, Timoney said, they found the data was full of errors. “By the time it gets to the public, it’s gone through this process where the electronic copy has been extracted to a pdf, printed onto paper, then scanned to be an electronic copy, and that’s what we get,” he said. “By the time you put it through the blender, what you get is literally five or ten thousand errors that then have to be fixed.” It took about four months with the programmer’s help to convert the files and correct errors, he said. Even when the database was fixed, Timoney discovered that it was missing important information. “The most serious incidents never become part of the publicly available data,” he said. This is because files under investigation are withheld from the incident tracking database, he said. Even when an investigation is closed, Timoney believes, its records aren’t added back. “When the public requests information, we expect it to be accurate, not filled with errors. If we’re trying to understand the incident regime in the area and all we get is garbled information, it becomes extremely difficult to know what’s happening.”
When asked generally about its database systems, Alberta Environment indicated that there is room for improvement. “Where we can modernize into a more computerized database, we’re trying to do that,” said ministry spokesperson Jessica Potter. “It is something that we’re working towards.” The current reporting system has been in place for a long time, she said. And because it’s such a big, busy department, it takes a long time and significant resources to change its processes. “Companies are required in their approvals to notify all public who may potentially be impacted,” in the event of an incident, she said. “It may not be a matter of it being an entire provincial response or notification, but those who may be potentially impacted in the area are notified and are required to be.” The quality of public notification has become an issue of contention, however – in the form of public consternation at being left in the dark by provincial regulators or the province castigating companies for only doing as much public outreach as is required. As Timoney was wrestling with provincial data in the summer and fall of 2012, Global News was going through a similar process, having requested information on oil spills from the same database. Global encountered many of the same problems, such as long delays, paper printouts, numerous errors and missing incidents. Global eventually decided the data was too unreliable for its investigation into oil spills, and obtained a cleaner database from the Energy Resources Conservation Board that better documented this kind of incident. But the board’s data relies largely on information self-reported by corporations. Timoney suspects it’s missing many incidents as well.
The new Alberta Energy Regulator recently began publishing a version of the old board’s database on its website. Updated daily, this information shows a selection of incidents, notably those involving sour gas and sour crude and incidents that have impacts off-lease. The regulator says the website shows the “vast majority” of incidents reported to it. Incidents reported to the energy regulator are not necessarily the same as those reported to environment, although the two are supposed to merge energy oversight responsibilities over the next several months. The data is also not available for download; regulator spokesperson Cara Tobin said they’re planning to look at this in the future, and hope to improve the data in other ways. “It’s a work in progress,” she said. Timoney says it’s “encouraging” that the regulator has taken this “small step.” But he feels his experience indicates the Alberta government is not transparent when it comes to environmental incidents in the oilsands.
The two groups who worked on the study, Treeline Ecological Research and Global Forest Watch Canada, are planning to make their reconstructed database available for download on their website. “I feel very strongly that the public has a right to know what’s happening,” Timoney said. “In this situation, what we’re trying to do is say, ‘Decide for yourself. Here’s the information that we gathered. If you wish to decide that environmental management in the bitumen sands region is good or bad, here’s a set of information that you can look at to decide for yourself.’” You can also download Global News’ database of releases from the oil and gas industry, obtained from the Alberta Energy Resources Conservation Board (now the Alberta Energy Regulator) here. [Emphasis added]
New data shows government oversight of oil and gas spills is spotty at best by Sarah Keller, July 24, 2013, High Country News
When the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency recently walked back its massive investigation of water contamination from natural gas drilling in Pavillion, Wyoming, John Hanger, a Democratic candidate for governor in Pennsylvania and the former secretary of the state’s Department of Environmental Protection, wrote on his blog: “The EPA has just put a ‘kick me’ sign on it. Its critics from all quarters will now oblige.” Hanger’s statement was part of a recent ProPublica story run by High Country News detailing how pulling the plug on Pavillion is part of a larger, perhaps systematic, EPA retreat from questioning the health, safety and environmental risks of fracking and oil drilling. Now, an energy news site has released a report that drills into state and federal data on oil and gas spills, blowouts, and other mishaps from 2009 to 2012. EnergyWire’s investigation provides a comprehensive picture of what it means to have little standardized oversight of accidents in the industry, which is becoming central to the White House’s climate strategy. EnergyWire’s investigation brings to light a spike in accidents since 2010 and a paucity of fines for mistakes. The report shows how the lack of national documentation on oil and gas spills, and a lack of enforcement, makes it difficult to track the consequences of the drilling boom in recent years. The data they did dig up in 12 states shows that spills increased 17 percent between 2010 and 2012, a time when drilling activity in those states jumped by 40 percent. Adding up the spills showed that just in 2012, there was more oil, fracking fluid and wastewater spilled from production sites than what spewed from the Exxon Valdez tanker in 1989—at least 15.6 million gallons in total. That doesn’t even include interstate pipeline or offshore spills, and EnergyWire says it’s probably an undercount because reports from Colorado, Oklahoma and Pennsylvania often omit the amount spilled.
EnergyWire noted that aside from Bureau of Land Management records on public lands spills, accident and enforcement data are spread across the country under the stewardship of state agencies, in a combination of digitized databases and old fashioned file drawers. North Dakota had the most spills last year, but reporting requirements that vary from state to state make it hard to make comparisons, and truly know where the most accidents happen. “In North Dakota, they have to report any spill of more than 1 barrel (42 gallons). In Texas, the threshold is five barrels. And in Oklahoma and Montana, it’s 10 barrels,” EnergyWire reported. Enforcement is equally difficult to track, and EnergyWire found that “it’s actually rare for state oil and gas regulators to hit companies with fines after spills and blowouts.” New Mexico regulators haven’t fined violators since a judge ruled in 2009 that the state Oil Conservation Division didn’t have the authority to do so. In Wyoming, there were 204 spills recorded during 2012, and the state environmental quality department slapped just 10 producers with water quality fines. In Texas, drilling inspectors found 55,000 violations and tried to enforce 2 percent of them in the last fiscal year. [Emphasis added]
Source: dirtyoilsands.org on Facebook
New Report: Less than 1-percent of Tar Sands Environmental Infractions Penalized by Kevin Grandia July 24th, 2013, Vancouver Observer
The report [pdf], authored by the environmental non-profit Global Forest Watch, looked at more than fifteen years of data on recorded environmental mishaps by oil sand’s companies, tracking the follow-up actions taken and the final verdict on fines. The findings are absolutely shocking and put to shame the idea that Canadians care about their natural environment. If we do care, then this report should be a wake up call for us all.
Of the more than 4,000 infractions reported, less than 1-percent (.09 to be exact) received an enforcement action (that would be less than 40 of 4,000). Compare this the US Environmental Protection Agency, who has an enforcement rate of 16% for similar infractions by companies under their Clean Water Act. When it comes to environmental protection, we suck more than the Americans (even during the George W. Bush years).
Global Forest Watch also found that the median fine for environmental infractions in the oil sands over the past 16 years was $4,500. If you were an oil sands player like ExxonMobil, who reported a profit last year of $44.9 billion, would you change your ways over a $4,500 fine? … We don’t have “strict environmental standards” at all….
Alberta: where we only prosecute tarsands violations 1% of the time by Mike Hudema, July 24, 2013, Greenpeace
New study reveals shocking details about ERCB’s regulation and enforcement. The Alberta government has made a lot of ‘world class’ claims relating to its management of a growing tar sands industry. Over the past few years, two researchers, Kevin Timoney and Peter Lee, decided to put those claims to the test and yesterday they published the results of their tireless investigation. The results are pretty startling.
From 1996 to the mid-2012 period the researchers uncovered over 9,262 environmental incidents in the tar sands region pieced together from spotty government records. That number averages out to be almost 2-per day. Over four thousand of those incidents were apparent violations of Alberta’s environmental laws and regulations, 86% of which were done by either Suncor or Syncrude. That already startling number is likely quite low because of the Government of Alberta’s shoddy record keeping. According to Timoney and Lee, ‘The incidents documented represent an unknown fraction of the true number of incidents occurring per unit time because of the combined effect of missing records, redacted records, multiple contraventions subsumed under a single incident, under-reporting, and the fact that other kinds of incidents, such as pipeline spills, are typically not reported to the EMS database.’ The true number of environmental incidents and violations is not known but is likely over the 10,000 mark.
The second startling number is that of the over 9,000 documented incidents only 0.9% of them resulted in some type of fine or other enforcement order from the Alberta government. That means 99.1% of the violations went without any type of enforcement at all – no fines, no charges, no compliance orders, nothing.
What type of message do you think it sends to companies like Syncrude, Shell and Exxon when they can break the law and 99% of the time nothing will be done about it? The situation is also getting worse. The highest numbers of incidents occurred from between 2008-2011, indicating that companies are continually and increasingly failing to comply with Alberta’s environmental legislation. The study also proves that the oil companies are not improving their practices. The study shows that the contraventions were chronic, repetitive and indicated little progress towards better management practices. … As we await answers from the on-going tar sands spill in Cold Lake and the myriad of other pipeline spills and tar sands incidents to hit Alberta two things are clear. Things are not under control – the tar sands industry in Alberta is essentially regulating itself. Prosecution is lax, oversight is non-existent, incidents continue to mount and the Alberta government isn’t doing much to anything about it. The other thing is that Alberta’s claim to be a “world class” environmental manger is as full of holes as some of its pipelines. [Emphasis added]
Tar sands well blowout raises questions about Alberta’s regulatory oversight by Danielle Droitsch, July 24, 2014, NRDC
The comprehensive 600-page report reveals that less than one percent of violations from tar sands operations are enforced. The study evaluated over 4,000 violations of Alberta’s environmental laws but found that 99 percent of those violations did not result in fines or other enforcement actions. The authors noted the Alberta environmental enforcement rate is far below that of the United States. According to the study, “the average enforcement rate for violations of the Clean Water Act in the United States for the period 2004-2007 was 16.0 %, over 17 times the environmental enforcement rate in Alberta’s bitumen sands region.” And the report also noted that of the 50 U.S. states, only 3 states had worse performance than Alberta. The report details chronic failures to enforce, poor oversight, failure to provide timely access to accurate and complete information, and a near total lack of enforcement. The report also profiles substandard safety procedures, poor communications and emergency response, and lax monitoring by industry and regulatory. This has led to “systemic problems in management, reporting, monitoring, and environmental protection…” according to the report.
Some of the key findings: They reviewed over 9,000 environmental incidents or violations related to tar sands development in northeastern Alberta between 1996 to mid-2012 period. There was a minimum of 4,063 alleged contraventions (or perceived violations of legislation) and the Alberta took enforcement actions 0.9 percent of the time. Most enforcement actions imposed only minor financial penalties, and it appears media attention and public involvement facilitate enforcement measures. The report details numerous examples of where violations of environmental rules were not reported to local communities. … The report also indicates that the Government of Alberta continuously failed to provide timely and accurate information to public following major spills. Journalists who have attempted to investigate oil spills in Alberta faced several hurdles with efforts to access information. The Alberta government was given a grade of “D” in the 2012 freedom of information audit conducted by Newspaper Canada. … Alberta leaders have made several claims to audiences in the U.S. that the province is a world leader on environmental issues. Alberta Premier Alison Redford has traveled to the United States defending Alberta’s environmental record. In a USA Today editorial she said, “We stand ready to demonstrate our strong track record on responsible oil sands development.” And at another speech she said Alberta is “home to some of the most environmentally friendly, progressive legislation in the world.” Despite these claims, there are indications that Alberta’s environmental record is lacking. [Emphasis added]
Update: Study finds little environmental enforcement in oilsands infractions
by Canadian Press, July 23, 2013, Calgary Herald
A survey of thousands of environmental problems in Alberta’s oilsands attacks the province’s claims to having strict control over the industry’s environmental impact. Fewer than one per cent of likely environmental infractions have drawn any enforcement, says the survey. It also says the province’s records are incomplete and riddled with errors, so there is no way to really understand industry’s impact on the region. And the authors found the same problems recurring time and time again, suggesting environmental improvement in some areas isn’t happening.
“When you’ve looked at thousands of these records, what we’re seeing is the tip of the iceberg,” said Kevin Timoney, a biologist and environmental consultant who is a co-author. A spokesman from the Alberta government was not immediately available. The genesis of the 677-page report — which is not published in an academic journal but has been peer-reviewed — was in 2008, when Timoney was working in Alberta Environment’s data library in Edmonton. He came across shelves of records that appeared to contain details of breaches of environmental regulations and conditions that hadn’t been publicly released. When library staff told him the records were off-limits, Timoney and Peter Lee of Global Forest Watch decided to find out what was in them. Through an epic series of Freedom of Information filings, they eventually compiled a list of 9,262 infractions since 1996 — everything from spills into the Athabasca River to excessive smokestack emissions to the discovery of random waste dumps in the bush.
Just as troubling as the quantity of the files is their quality. “It was evident that there were thousands of incidents the public didn’t know anything about,” Timoney said. “(But) it’s exceedingly difficult to do anything with them because they basically just give you a pile of paper.” Timoney and Lee asked for the records in two different formats: one with basic data and one with more detail. Instead of getting two sets of files with different information on the same events, they received two substantially different sets of incidents. The files themselves are often incomplete and full of mistakes. Some lack information such as what gases were released in an air-related contravention. Others lump together several incidents into a single report. Many are spelled and written in such a way as to be impossible to organize into a database. More than 5,000 such errors had to be fixed before the authors could even start their analysis. “The system does not provide timely and accurate data,” the report concludes. “The number of incidents and the analyses of incident rates should be viewed as minimum estimates.” Eventually, however, patterns emerged. …
Consequences for the exceedances were few, the survey found. Of the total number of incidents, about 4,000 were reported as “alleged contraventions” — something that broke a facility’s licence conditions. Since 1996, the Alberta government has taken enforcement action in 37 of those cases for an enforcement rate of 0.9 per cent. By comparison, the study found the U.S. had an average enforcement rate of Clean Water Act violations of 8.2 per cent — nine times higher than Alberta. … “Alberta’s environmental regulations in the bitumen sands region are not being upheld,” the report concludes. Timoney asks how the government can say it is protecting the environment when it has such poor records of what has happened and when industry faces such low odds of being penalized for breaking the rules. “It suggests to me that there’s a disconnect between what the approval is stating and what the industry is doing,” he said. “We can have the government state that we have very good regulations, but it’s not honest for them to say we have very good regulations that are being upheld.” The total budget for the study was $220,000. About ten per cent of that came from the New Ventures Fund, a U.S.-based charity that funds a wide variety of causes from conservation to the arts. The rest of the support came from the authors themselves. [Emphasis added]
[Refer also to:
Source of above snap: Rocky View Weekly, June 25, 2013
The Big Squeeze: North American Regulator and Protective Agency Close Controversial Groundwater Contamination Cases Press Release by BC Tap Water Alliance, July 12, 2013
The Big Squeeze: Will Koop dénonce l’abandon de la protection de l’eau par le Canada et les É.-U. French Translation by Ami(e)s du Richelieu July 14, 2013 ]