Two years after Canada found in violation of Fisheries Act, still no federal action on tar sands tailings ponds

Toronto | Traditional territories of the Huron-Wendat, the Anishnaabeg, Haudenosaunee, Chippewas and the Mississaugas of the Credit First Nation –September 4 marks the two-year anniversary of when the international Commission for Environmental Cooperation (CEC) concluded that Canada was failing to enforce the Fisheries Act. The CEC’s Factual Record shows overwhelming evidence that Canada’s oil sands tailings ponds are leaking toxic pollutants into groundwater and tributaries of the Athabasca River, meaning they are operating in violation of the Fisheries Act. Since then, the Federal government has taken no action to address this situation, despite proclaiming that “the tailings issue is a problem that we are going to have to address” and the findings of  the Factual Record “cannot be ignored.”

Their continued inaction has allowed potentially billions of additional litres of toxic waste to leak from the tailings ponds. The tailings “ponds” now hold a staggering 1.4 trillion litres of fluids and cover an area of more than 300 km², enough to cover Paris three times over.

This anniversary takes place two weeks after UNESCO officials made a trip to Alberta to determine whether to place Wood Buffalo National Park, a UNESCO-recognized World Heritage Site, on the infamous “World Heritage In Danger” list. The review of the park’s status is in large part due to the Canadian and Alberta governments’ unwillingness to enforce strong environmental standards in the oil sands.

The oil companies fueling the climate crisis are also knowingly allowing toxic substances to leak into the Athabasca River, putting local Indigenous communities and ecosystems in harm’s way. The government must hold these companies accountable for violating the Fisheries Act, and ensure the immense volume of waste the industry has left on the landscape is cleaned up based on reclamation plans approved by impacted First Nations and Metis Nations.

We’re calling on Minister Guilbeault to bring an end to environmental racism in Alberta’s tar sands and ensure the law designed to protect ecosystems is enforced.

Decades after the first drop of toxic water leaked from the ponds and two years after the CEC acknowledged that Canada was failing to enforce its own law, it is imperative that we see action from those mandated with protecting the environment. 

Background: main findings of the factual record released by the CEC:

The Commission on Environmental Cooperation is a multinational body created under NAFTA to conduct research and facilitate cooperation and public conversations on shared environmental issues.

  • The record validated the claims of Environmental Defence, The Natural Resources Defence Council and Daniel T’Seleie of the K’ahsho Got’ine Dene First Nation. In failing to enforce the Fisheries Act, the government of Canada is placing the health of First Nations people and the wildlife and ecosystems they depend upon at risk.

  • The Factual Record estimated 785,000 cubic metres of Oil Sands Process Water (OSPW) have leaked from the Aurora Settling Basin alone, corresponding to an average of 39.25 million litres a year from a single tailings pond over its 20-year operation. 

  • Data provided by Syncrude and validated by independent scientists show seepage of tailings ponds chemicals into groundwater adjacent to tributaries of the Athabasca River.

  • There is experimental and monitoring evidence showing that tailings chemicals seep into freshwater, meaning that tailings water is circumventing systems intended to capture it after it escapes tailings ponds. Two tributaries of the Athabasca River contained elevated concentrations of tailings chemicals.

  • The evidence presented in the CEC Factual Record clearly shows that tailings ponds are seeping and that their continued operation, in the absence of regulatory authority, constitutes a violation of the Fisheries Act.

  • The federal government is responsible for enforcing the Fisheries Act, since there is no administrative agreement between the federal and Alberta governments giving the responsibility for enforcing the Fisheries Act solely to Alberta.

Read the full Factual Record here:

Our latest report on the tailings ponds can be found here:

ABOUT ENVIRONMENTAL DEFENCE ( Environmental Defence is a leading Canadian environmental advocacy organization that works with government, industry and individuals to defend clean water, a safe climate and healthy communities.

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For more information or to request an interview, please contact:

Paula Gray, Communications Manager, Environmental Defence,, 705-435-8611