For Immediate Release: May 10, 2018

Statement by Environmental Defence’s Dale Marshall on international ruling that points to Canada’s neglect of leaking toxic tar sands tailing ponds

Ottawa, Ont. – We welcome the decision by NAFTA’s environmental arm that the Canadian government may have failed to enforce its own environmental laws with respect to tar sands tailings ponds leaking toxins into nearby rivers.

It is hard to understand why the Canadian government decided to pull environmental inspectors from the tar sands region in 2014, after those inspectors found toxic chemicals from tailings ponds that exceeded government guidelines. That was one of the reasons that the NAFTA body ruled against the federal government in a case brought by Environmental Defence and partners.

Pulling inspectors from the tar sands region showed clear disregard for the impacts that tailings ponds have on human and environmental health. According to the ruling, government scientists determined that those toxins were likely leaking into the Athabasca River. Contamination of rivers and aquifers has been linked to health effects in Indigenous communities downstream from the tar sands.

The current federal government should do what the previous one did not—send inspectors in to further investigate leaking tailings ponds, and bring criminal prosecutions where environmental laws have been broken. It should also vote to allow the NAFTA body to investigate if the federal government is properly enforcing Canada’s environmental laws.


The Commission for Environmental Cooperation (CEC) ruling was based partly on the fact that between 2009 and 2013 government inspectors determined that at least 15 water samples at six of seven sites near tailings ponds had levels of toxic chemicals above government guidelines. At two of those sites, government scientists determined that the source of the contamination was the tailings pond rather than “natural” contamination from bitumen deposits. At one site, the government estimated that the contamination was likely leaking into the Athabaska River.

Despite this evidence, the federal government reassigned environmental inspectors to other regions of Canada. The government decided that further inspections of leaking tailings ponds would be done only in response to a public complaint rather than on a proactive basis.

The CEC is the environmental arm of the North American Free Trade Agreement. Citizens from any of the three NAFTA countries can bring a case if they feel a country is not properly enforcing its environmental laws. The CEC can recommend to undertake a factual record, an in-depth investigation into the issue including the government’s actions.


June 2017: Environmental Defence worked with partners to file this case with the CEC. We claimed that the federal government was failing to enforce the Fisheries Act by not charging tar sands companies that have tailings ponds that are leaking toxic chemicals into rivers and aquifers.

August 2017: The CEC determined that the case had merits and requested a response from the Government of Canada.

November 2017: The Government of Canada responded to the CEC.

April 2018: The CEC determined that, despite the government’s response, it recommended a factual record be undertaken

Next: A vote of the three NAFTA parties has to be taken within 60 days on whether the CEC can undertake a factual record. A simple majority is needed for the CEC to proceed.

About ENVIRONMENTAL DEFENCE ( Environmental Defence is Canada’s most effective environmental action organization. We challenge, and inspire change in government, business and people to ensure a greener, healthier and prosperous life for all.

For more information or to arrange an interview please contact:
Barbara Hayes, Environmental Defence, 613-255-5724;