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Feds hiding legitimate concerns over oil sands pipelines, critics say

Unpublished report says potential toxic effects and environmental threats from bitumen pipelines are relatively unknown.


OTTAWA — The federal government has been trying to hide legitimate concerns about the consequences of oil sands pipelines by keeping under wraps a report on the possible environmental threats such projects pose, critics say.

“We are being sold a bill of goods by this government,” said New Democrat environment critic Megan Leslie.

“If this report has been around since 2013 and not been released, then it makes me think they must be trying to hide something.”

The unpublished report on environmental threats from oil and bitumen pipelines says little is known about the potential toxic effects of oil sands products in oceans, lakes or rivers.

“In particular, research on the toxicology of bitumen is lacking,” says the draft report, commissioned in response to concerns raised at the Northern Gateway pipeline hearings.

The document comes as Canada debates pipeline proposals for moving large amounts of diluted bitumen from Alberta’s oil sands to refineries and ports on both coasts and into the United States. It was obtained by Greenpeace under freedom-of-information legislation.

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A spokesman for the department of Fisheries and Oceans said a more complete, peer-reviewed version of the report will be published in the coming months.

But Canadians need that information now, said Keith Stewart of Greenpeace. He said the fact the Harper Tories approved Northern Gateway in spite of important knowledge gaps shows a dangerous lack of caution.

“The fact they’re saying full speed ahead even though they know it’s a lot more dangerous than they’ve been letting on publicly should be a cause for concern,” he said. “It throws into question the regulatory approvals process, when they withhold this kind of information.”

An early draft of the report lays out 10 specific “knowledge gaps” about bitumen and the various substances used to dilute it when it’s pumped through pipelines.

“Very little information is available on the physical and chemical characteristics of oil sands-related products following a spill into water,” it says. “Research on the biological effects of oil sands-related products on aquatic organisms is lacking.”

“A better understanding of the fate and behaviour of these products is critical for assessing the potential risk to aquatic organisms.”

More research is needed on what happens to heavy metals in bitumen in a spill. There is a “lack of information” on how condensate — a lighter hydrocarbon used to dilute bitumen — behaves in water.

The understanding of how chemicals in bitumen would interact with fish should be improved, the report says. Specific research in different water bodies is needed.

The impact of sunlight, which can make some chemicals in bitumen vastly more harmful, is also unknown. The combined effect of bitumen and dispersants — chemical agents used to break up oil spilled in water — hasn’t been studied.

The draft finds that Orimulsion, a Venezuelan product about two-thirds bitumen and one-third water, is “highly toxic to fish” – 300 times more toxic to embryos than heavy fuel oil.

The 61-page draft includes 14 pages of references to peer-reviewed academic studies as well as government and industry publications. They date from 1976 to 2013 and include articles from a wide variety of scientific journals.

The government spokesman said funding has already been provided for five research projects on possible bitumen effects on fish and shellfish.

One new federal report, released Jan. 14, echoes many of the concerns from the unreleased review. It concluded little can be said about how bitumen changes as it weathers, how it interacts with sediments or whether it would float or sink.

“Research regarding how bitumen products will further biodegrade in the environment is insufficient,” it concludes.

© 2015 The Canadian Press

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