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.

The Alberta government disputes the findings.   

Origins of report

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."

Discrepancy claims

The files were generated through industry self-reporting and public complaints. Timoney and Lee asked for them in two different formats: one with basic data and one with more detail. 

But 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.

Air quality is primary concern

Almost two-thirds of the contraventions concerned air quality, most often exceedances of the hourly limits imposed on oilsands facilities for emissions of gases such as sulphur dioxide and hydrogen sulphide — most of them from the same facilities.

Almost one in five  was "no impact," usually failures to report data or meet other regulatory requirements.

Water was involved in about seven per cent of the infractions. Municipal and land issues made up just over one per cent.

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. 

Provincial fines, despite high-profile sanctions such as a $3-million penalty levied on Syncrude for ducks that died in its tailings pond, tended to be low. The median fine was $4,500.

"Alberta's environmental regulations in the bitumen sands region are not being upheld," the report concludes.

Provincial officials dispute the findings

Alberta Environment spokespeople challenged the report's findings. 

Wayne Wood, press secretary to Environment Minister Diana McQueen, said that because the rules oblige companies to report every exceedance, files are created for even the smallest infractions.

"They could be incidents that don't actually require any kind of regulatory enforcement, certainly not prosecution," Wood said. The government often relies on other methods to try and get companies to meet environmental standards, he added.

"It might even just be prevention tips we're giving to them."

Department spokeswoman Nikki Booth said the information in the report was drawn from a log book that was never meant to be used by the public to generate a database. Department staff who work with the files are familiar enough with them to draw reliable conclusions, she said.

"They know the database. They know what they're looking for. They know how to use it. Having people from the public coming in and searching the database, it just wasn't intended for that," she said

The government is trying to find a way to make its incident report records more accessible and user-friendly, Booth added. "We see that there's a public demand for it." 

Timoney remains skeptical

Still, Timoney asks how the government can say it is protecting the environment when it has such spotty 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 10 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.