In Cold Lake, Alberta an environmental disaster is unfolding. The Primrose bitumen emulsion site has been seeping tar over 30 acres of swampy forest for the past nine weeks. Already, the viscous substance has contaminated a large swath of vegetation and killed dozens of animals. About 26,000 barrels of tar have been removed from the area. An anonymous government scientist told the Star that the leak was not going away, that no one understood the causes of the problem, and do not have any effective remediation measures in place. A spokesperson for the Alberta Energy Regulator (AER), which oversees the extraction sites, is currently working with owner Canadian Natural Resources Ltd to begin to clean up the mess.

bitumen, tar, extraction, global warming

The Primrose site extracts 100,000 barrels of bitumen out of the ground each day through a process known as cyclic steam stimulation (CSS). The method injects millions of gallons of pressurized steam hundreds of feet down into the earth where it loosens the bitumen enough for it to be pumped to the surface. Eighty percent of all bitumen that can be extracted can only be removed by steam, and although it has been described as a more environmentally friendly alternative to the technology that has left regions of Alberta with visible scars, the CSS actually releases more CO2. There have been accidents with this type of mining in the past at Primrose back as recently as 2009.

On May 21 of this year, springs of watery bitumen began to appear on the surface, and localized extraction was stopped when the first three appeared. When a fourth formed close to a body of water, AER scaled back operations. Currently, no one seems to know what the long-term consequences of the leak will be, and whether or not it has impacted groundwater. Representatives from Canadian Natural and AER assure that the seep does not pose a risk to humans and that wildlife deterrents have been put in place. However, the problem has persisted for weeks with no signs of slowing.


Via Mother Jones

Images via Wikicomons users Ssgt. Derrick C. Goode and Vales.