In the midst of UN climate and biodiversity conferences in late 2022, it was easy to miss the fact that a group of scientists sent federal Environment Minister Steven Guilbeault a letter urging him to use great caution as he considers regulations that could authorize oilsands producers to release their toxic wastewater into the Athabasca River and its tributaries.

This was the first time that members of the scientific community came out with a position on the potential release of tailings water. The conversation that ensued was another clear case of politicians mistaking process for progress when it comes to Canada’s handling of the toxic tailings.

Tailings “ponds” are immense lakes of toxic waste created by oil companies in the Alberta tar sands. They now contain over 1.4 trillion litres of toxic fluid and sprawl over 300 square kilometres — an area 2.6 times the size of Vancouver. The situation has grown out of control, and oil companies are now asking the government to allow them to release the tailings into the Athabasca River, which flows north into one of the largest freshwater deltas in the world.

A large tailings pond in the Alberta oilsands. Tailings ponds are used to separate the heavy oil bitumen from the sticky sand mined from the area. Photo by iStock

Shortly before the COP15 UN biodiversity summit, a group of concerned scientists and doctors sent Guilbeault a letter stating that any water released from the tailings must meet the highest water-quality standards: a guarantee of “no further exposure”.

This is a high standard, which says it is not acceptable to permit the release of treated tailings even if they have concentrations of dangerous chemicals and substances below the Canada-wide health limits. Instead, any wastewater that is released into the river must be virtually free of these substances.

The scientists agreed this standard is needed because the Athabasca River is already polluted by decades of tailings leaking into groundwater and evaporating chemicals in nearby waterways. Other industrial activities further upstream also add to the pollution of the river.

The communities of Fort Chipewyan and Fort McKay experience a high rate of rare cancers. Elders from these communities have also noticed a decline in local biodiversity.

The minister’s response was to point to the Crown-Indigenous working group set up by his department in 2021, on which nine Indigenous communities sit.

Oil companies want the federal government to allow them to release tailings into the Athabasca River, which flows north into one of the largest freshwater deltas in the world, writes Aliénor Rougeot @AlienorR2 @envirodefence #cdnpoli

The group’s initial purpose was to discuss the release regulations, but Canada now claims that release is only “one of the options under consideration” and that the working group is exploring alternatives.

Having a good process is important, but when it comes to Alberta’s toxic ponds, process is all we’ve had for the last five decades, at the expense of measurable progress for the people living downstream.

The long list of frameworks, directives and monitoring programs has done little to improve the situation, as exemplified by the increase in the levels of contaminants, such as phosphorus, nitrogen, arsenic, lithium, uranium and potassium, in the Athabasca’s surface water.

“I have reviewed numerous environmental impact assessments for those last two decades, intervened and participated in numerous regulatory joint federal and provincial hearings… We have intervened voicing concerns about the growth and the management of these tailings, and here we are 40 years later with only one option forced upon us, and that is to treat and release these tailings ponds,” said Melody Lepine, director of government and industry relations for Mikisew Cree First Nation, during a press conference on the issue at COP15.

Source: Olsgard, M. 2022. A Scientific Look at the Dangers of Tailings Ponds: Health Threats from Current and Future Oilsands Tailings Management. Water is Life Legal Summit. Presentation. Dec. 8, 2022.

It’s good that the government is looking at other options, but missing from the minister’s response is a sense of urgency: the tailings ponds continue to sprawl over the boreal forest, leak millions of litres of their toxic content daily into the groundwater, and harm the birds that drown in them, the nearby communities that fall sick from them, and even workers who are victims of workplace safety incidents linked to tailings.

Immediate action is needed, starting with a long-awaited independent health study, penalizing the companies responsible for the leaks, and putting a moratorium on tailings' growth while a long-term and safe solution is found for how to deal with them.

The federal government is putting effort and thoughtfulness into answering the question it posed about whether to authorize the release of tailings. Yet, the scientists behind the letter teach us this is the wrong question. Given the existing risks and damage caused by the tailings, the only question governments should be focused on answering is: “How do we guarantee no further exposure to dangerous chemicals for the downstream Indigenous communities?”

Aliénor Rougeot is a Toronto-based climate justice organizer and a climate and energy program manager at Environmental Defence, a leading Canadian environmental advocacy organization, where she advocates for a just transition for workers and communities.

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A problem that follows from our prevailing philosophy regarding resource extraction is that ecosystem health retention -- that is, a priori setting of hard boundaries around and limits to ecosystem degradation -- is not set in stone, in perpetuity.

For example, decades of cautious, righteous policy can be destroyed on a whim with a fleeting change of gov't; the cutting of a prized section of old growth; a release of a tailings pond liability by flushing it away over the course of a single election mandate with untold downstream impacts.

How does a society maintain the integrity of its natural inheritance?

We all need an Bill of Environmental Rights.
For starters, make it require progressive realization, starting with No More Toxic Releases ... into air, water or soil, and make Health Canada's approvals for new substances and processes subject to health/environmental (including human) safety, not relying on industry "research."

I don't have a clue, though, how to add a few IQ points to our politicians' qualifications.