Toxic waste holding ponds now contain 1.36 billion cubic metres of fluids and cover a surface 1.7 times the size of Vancouver

Edmonton, AB— The Alberta Energy Regulator (AER) quietly released a report on its web site last week showing that oil sands tailing ponds grew another 90 million cubic meters in 2020, despite a drop in oil production. The same report shows operators reached neither their own projections nor regulatory standards for decreased volumes of fluids in the ponds. This is despite numerous assurances from industry, and repeated promises from the government of Alberta, that these ponds full of toxic waste from industry operations will be cleaned up.

“Contrary to what the oil industry and governments have been promising, Alberta’s tailings ponds are getting bigger, imposing graver risk to the land, water and downstream communities,” said Alienor Rougeot, Climate and Energy Program Manager at Environmental Defence.  “It’s now clear that we can’t rely on the oil industry or Alberta to clean up its mess – the Federal government must finally step in and regulate what has become one of the most toxic sites in North America.”

Alberta’s tailings contain dangerous levels of mercury, arsenic, cyanide, benzene and naphthenic acids, which are entirely unique to the oil sands. Since 1996, First Nations and Métis communities have been asking for an independent study of the effects of these leaks on their health and on the wellbeing of their ecosystems, as they experience high rates of rare cancers. This report shows that oil companies like Suncor, Syncrude and Canadian Natural Resources Limited (CNRL) stopped monitoring their tailings ponds during COVID.

“The oil industry keeps getting away with doing nothing about its toxic tailings while my people are the sacrifice,” said Jean L’Hommecourt, co-chair of the Board of Keepers of the Water and a Denesuline woman living in Fort McKay. She added, “We can smell the toxins in the air, they’re in our water and have been for years, but no one in government cares. It’s a crime against the law of nature, against humanity.”

Instead of stepping in to ensure stringent provincial regulations are finally developed and enforced, the federal government is now giving into oil industry pressure by developing regulations that allow oil companies to dump toxic tailings into the Athabasca River. There is no independent scientific proof that this process is safe, and the plan faces widespread opposition by Indigenous groups and environmental organizations.

The report comes after the one year anniversary of a factual record issued by the Commission for Environmental Cooperation, an international body created under NAFTA, provided evidence that Alberta’s tailings are leaking dangerous substances into groundwater, and are operating in violation of Canada’s Fisheries Act.


For more information and to arrange an interview please contact:

Barbara Hayes, Environmental Defence, bhayes@environmentaldefence.ca

Jesse Cardinal, Keepers of the Water, nipiy3@gmail.com