For Immediate Release: August 27, 2018

Statement by Environmental Defence’s Dale Marshall on the decision to allow the environmental arm of NAFTA to undertake a limited investigation of leaking tailings ponds contaminating Alberta’s rivers

Ottawa, Ont. – The recently announced investigation  into toxic chemicals leaking from tar sands tailings ponds into Alberta’s rivers and aquifers, requested by Environmental Defence and now agreed to by all three NAFTA parties, will shed some light on this important problem. However, it is disappointing that the scope of the investigation has been narrowed to avoid the crux of the issue—whether the federal government has failed to enforce its own environmental laws and protect the health of Canadians from irresponsible industrial practices. Based on the formal agreement governing the Commission for Environmental Cooperation, it is unclear if the parties have the authority to alter the scope of an investigation.

The evidence Environmental Defence presented is clear. Tailings ponds are leaking toxic contaminants. Tar sands companies admit that their tailings ponds leak. And federal government scientists have published research that links the chemical “fingerprint” in tailings ponds to groundwater flowing into the Athabasca River.

Unfortunately, the investigation that will be undertaken by NAFTA’s environmental arm will only investigate the already established science on leaking tailings ponds, and the regulatory collaboration between the Alberta and Canadian governments, including the joint monitoring program.

The federal government must instead take a different approach starting now and enforce Canada’s environmental laws in order to protect freshwater, ecosystems, and the citizens of Alberta. Waiting another year or more for the tangential investigation to conclude would prolong the risk to human health and the environment.

Background information:

  • Environmental Defence, Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), and Daniel T’seleie of the K’ahsho Got’ine Dene First Nation submitted a case to the CEC in June 2017, arguing that the federal government was failing to enforce the Fisheries Act with respect to tailings ponds that are leaking toxic chemicals into nearby rivers. See http://www.cec.org/sem-submissions/alberta-tailings-ponds-ii
  • The CEC is an environmental body created through the North American Free Trade Agreement, with the three NAFTA countries as members. Its mandate is to investigate citizen’s submissions, assess whether environmental laws are not being upheld, and do deep investigations into the problems and solutions.
  • Based on the evidence we presented, the CEC recommended that it undertake a deep investigation on leaking tailings ponds, and whether the federal government is properly enforcing its environmental laws. The three NAFTA countries voted to allow the CEC to undertake a factual record but with more limited scope to:

The scientific record of bitumen-contaminated water reaching freshwater “naturally” vs. from tailings.

How the Alberta and the federal governments collaborate on enforcing the Fisheries Act.

How the joint monitoring program is informing Canada’s enforcement of the Fisheries Act.

  • The CEC has 180 working days, or until May 2019, to complete a first draft of the report. The final report will be published in late 2019 at the earliest.
  • Though the Alberta government has jurisdiction to manage resource development, the federal government has the authority to enforce laws related to toxic pollution and impacts on fish-bearing rivers.
  • Alberta tailings ponds are now over 3 trillion litres and growing
  • Alberta tar sands companies are submitting tailings plans that rely on water capping, an unproven and risky approach involving putting tailings in mined out pits and covering them with water. Proposed timelines for completing reclamation sometimes extend to the end of this century. The Alberta Energy Regulator has approved several of these plans.

About ENVIRONMENTAL DEFENCE (environmentaldefence.ca): 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.

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Barbara Hayes, Environmental Defence, 613-255-5724; bhayes@environmentaldefence.ca