The Alberta tar sands have become synonymous with global climate change, but their production process wreaks destruction across a huge region of North America’s boreal forest. Tailings ponds, which now hold more than 1 trillion liters of toxic waste, are a commonly overlooked byproduct of the tar sands industry that has long been flagged for regulators as a potential environmental catastrophe. Yet, in its lackluster response to our petition to NAFTA’s Commission for Environmental Cooperation (CEC) last month, the Canadian government showed an alarming inability to take even basic steps to begin confronting the problem. Meanwhile, noxious chemicals are leaking into major rivers, taking a toll on the fragile boreal forest environment and Indigenous Peoples that have lived in the area for thousands of years.
In June 2017, the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), Environmental Defence Canada (EDC) and Daniel T’seleie of the K’ahsho Got’ine Dene First Nation filed a petition to the CEC, NAFTA’s environmental tribunal, to hold the Canadian government accountable to its own federal laws. Specifically, the petition urged the CEC to investigate Canada’s enforcement (or lack thereof) of its Fisheries Act, which prohibits leaking of “deleterious substances” into fresh water bodies, including leaks from tar sands tailings ponds into the waters of Northeast Alberta. In November, Environment and Climate Change Canada (ECCC) offered a startling response, using nature as an alibi for the tar sands industry’s environmental wrongdoings.
Citing its record of inspections and scientific research, ECCC asserted that its actions demonstrate “effective enforcement” of the Fisheries Act’s pollution prevention provisions. According to the government’s response, Canada had been taking a “proactive” approach until 2014, but regulators claim that their methodology was insufficient to understand whether contamination was “natural” or if it was a result of extractive industries. Using this flimsy cover, Canada then admitted that it has prioritized other issues since 2014, and taken a “reactive” approach to the ever-growing tar sands tailings problem. As a result, Alberta’s tar sands tailings ponds will continue to seep into the province’s fresh water system for the foreseeable future. NAFTA’s CEC has 120 working days from ECCC’s response to decide on next steps in the dispute.
Producing oil from tar sands is a resource-intensive process. An industrial hellscape of open-pit mines spreads across the land, giving way to 220 km2 of tailings ponds that drown the ruins of once-undisturbed old growth boreal forest. According to Natural Resources Canada, a typical surface mine requires 3-4 barrels of fresh water in order to produce one barrel of crude oil from tar sands, a fact that has made water levels plummet in surrounding rivers during dry years. And because this water turns into a lethal stew—that contains not just H20, but also sand, silt, heavy metals and highly harmful petrochemical byproducts like lead, mercury, arsenic and benzene—it ends up in these ponds.
Tailings ponds present a clear and present danger because they fail to contain these damaging chemicals. In fact, the federal government’s own research has shown that toxic substances are seeping into groundwater and the Athabasca River, causing serious health risks. EDC’s analysis of industry data revealed that the ponds are leaking 11 million liters per day in aggregate, and that a single pond can leak up to 6.5 million liters per day. Tailings ponds are ostensibly designed to allow minerals to “settle out” in order to prevent seepage of polluted water outside of containment zones, but evidence shows that the dirty water is interacting with the Athabasca watershed. In addition to wet toxins, the ponds emit dry pollutants: carcinogenic hydrocarbons evaporate into the ambient air and pass into the water supply, and greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide and methane enter the atmosphere, contributing to climate change.
Astonishingly, for nearly half a century, from 1967 to 2009, no regulations or requirements to limit tailings ponds even existed, despite producers relying on the method to store their substantial volumes of toxic waste. Then, in 2009, Alberta acknowledged that a serious environmental threat was lurking in the tailings ponds, and regulators signaled their willingness to do something about it. Alberta’s government proposed Directive 074, but industry was able to ignore it because there was scant enforcement. This failure triggered NRDC and EDC to submit our first petition in April 2010, flagging abundant evidence of the leakage problem and outlining what enforcement of the Fisheries Act would look like.
Alberta’s government announced a Tailings Management Framework (TMF) in March 2015, setting targets for tailings reductions, but these requirements favored industry and were too weak to protect the environment and communities impacted by the waste. In July 2016, the Alberta Energy Regulator issued Directive 085, requiring companies to submit Tailings Management Plans aimed at shrinking the tailings, but a Pembina Institute study soon revealed that the industry’s plans would allow for increases in tailings for decades, and allow further delays for reclaiming the landscape. We therefore refiled our petition in June 2017, arguing that Canada and Alberta should take a closer look at Directive 085 and include more stringent requirements for companies to substantially reduce the volume of tailings and immediately begin the long process of reclamation. Last month, Canada admitted failure, conceding that they have not prioritized enforcement.
The problem for Canada is that there is a growing body of research that convincingly undermines their weak excuse. Recent studies confirm that tar sands bitumen has a unique environmental fingerprint found in areas surrounding the epicenter of production, including waterways into which tailings are known to be leaking.
Urgent Need to Reduce Health and Environmental Hazards
Given ECCC’s acknowledgment of its own shortcomings, there are two main considerations that merit a more concerted effort:
1. Disproportionate impact on Indigenous Peoples
Canada endorsed the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) in 2016, after having committed to it in principle in 2010. Moreover, Bill C-262, brought by New Democratic Party MP, Romeo Saganash, has gained support from Liberals to legislate and enforce UNDRIP under Canadian law. If the Canadian government is sincere about its current principles on relations with Indigenous Peoples—which recognize that “meaningful engagement with Indigenous peoples aims to secure their free, prior, and informed consent when Canada proposes to take actions which impact them and their rights, including their lands, territories and resources”—then it is imperative that authorities consider local knowledge and enforce stronger environmental protections.
The Athabasca River flows north, through the predominantly Indigenous community of Fort Chipewyan, where residents have suffered rare forms of cancer that are typically tied to fossil fuel production sites. In 2014, the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation (AFCN) and the Mikisew Cree First Nation (MCFN) released a report in collaboration with researchers from University of Manitoba that outlined clear associations between tar sands contaminants and illness and affliction in Fort Chipewyan. Tailings ponds are also impacting biodiversity on First Nation territories with increased animal mortality and deformities observed by hunters and fishermen. To address these environmental injustices, Canada should enforce its Fisheries Act, and Alberta should offer adequate support for monitoring, but these governments must also work with Indigenous Peoples on a nation-to-nation basis.
2. Slow and costly remediation
Tar sands mining is a truly Sisyphean undertaking. The costs of cleaning up the tailings ponds mess are estimated to be so high that, if Albertan taxpayers are saddled with the bill, the cost will cancel out the amount of royalties that Alberta has received from producing oil from tar sands since 1969—and then some. To alleviate this hefty burden on tax payers, Alberta needs to reverse course, and ensure that the tar sands industry remains on the hook for the toxic legacy they continue to spread across the boreal forest. A first step is ending, as soon as possible, any further accumulation of tailings waste. Achieving that basic milestone will allow industry to begin keeping its promise to remediate these environmental catastrophes and allow the region to begin the long process of healing.