Dam Safety Program

The AER is committed to holding industry accountable for developing the province’s energy resources in an environmentally responsible and safe manner. This includes dam safety.

Fluid-containment structures like dams and storage ponds, including oil sands tailing ponds, coal tailing ponds, and oil and gas fluid storage ponds, are used in the development of Alberta’s energy resources.

In May 2015, the AER created a Dam Safety Program to ensure the integrity of all fluid-containment structures related to energy resource development in Alberta. The program ensures that all regulated dams are designed, constructed, operated, maintained, and decommissioned safely, and that owners and the AER are prepared to respond in the event of an emergency.

Today, the AER regulates 193 of the approximately 1500 dams in Alberta. The AER-regulated dams enclose 113 ponds related to oil sands development (63), coal mining (30), or oil and gas operations (20). Due to topography, multiple dams are sometimes required on a single pond.

Our Dam Safety Program consists of risk assessments, physical inspections of dams, and audits of an owner’s dam safety management system (i.e., how they are keeping their dam safe).

The AER inspects all dams. The frequency of the inspections varies between every 2 to every 10 years depending on the dam’s assessed level of risk (i.e., the severity of consequences if there were a release), the dam’s size and location, the fluid type, and the associated project.

The Dam Safety Program complements the AER’s Tailings Regulatory Management Program, which addresses the long-term management of fluid tailings growth and reclamation.

Annual inspection and audit results

Background

In March 2014, the AER assumed responsibility from the Government of Alberta for regulating all containment structures, like dams and fluid-storage ponds, used in the development of Alberta’s energy resources.

In March 2015, the Office of the Auditor General of Alberta released an audit of Alberta Environment and Parks’ management of the province’s dam safety program. In the report, the Auditor General made recommendations to improve how information is managed and shared with the public.

The AER accepted all of the recommendations made by the Auditor General. In spring 2015, the AER launched its inspection program, which included reviewing past inspection data from Alberta Environment and Parks. Inspection guidelines were developed that consider, among other factors, risk and operator history and performance.

Meanwhile, as we were building and implementing our Dam Safety Program, AER investigators were examining what led to the Obed Mountain Mine spill. The spill that occurred in October 2013 contaminated water and damaged the creek bed of two tributaries of the Athabasca River.

The contaminated water subsequently flowed into the Athabasca River.

The spill, in addition to the Auditor General’s recommendations to improve Alberta’s dam safety programs, led us to ensure the AER’s Dam Inspection Program is robust—so we can catch issues like the ones that led to the Obed spill before they happen.

For more information about the AER’s Dam Safety Program, see