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Harper to block NAFTA commission from studying tar sands tailings ponds


The Harper government is trying to block a weak environmental commission – set up under the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) – from examining the environmental impacts of the 176 square kilometres of toxic tailings ponds produced by the northern Alberta tar sands.

CBC reports, “It appears Mexico and the U.S. will go along with efforts to stop a formal investigation.” The Canadian Press has previously reported, “[An] investigation only proceeds if a majority of member nations approve it. The commission has little or no enforcement power even if it does conclude a nation isn’t living up to its environmental laws.” At best a factual record would be written on the situation.

The CBC article further explains that three people from Alberta, Saskatchewan and the Northwest Territories, along with Environmental Defence and the Natural Resources Defense Council, want the Commission on Environmental Co-operation to determine if Canada is violating the Fisheries Act by failing to prevent these tailings from leaking into the Athabasca River and nearby creeks in northern Alberta.

The Commission on Environmental Co-operation was established in 1994 so that NAFTA proponents could say that trade liberalization would be accompanied by environmental protection. It was meant to mitigate public concern about the trade deal by creating a mechanism that could look into public complaints about violations of national laws intended to protect the land, water and air. But if anything, its track record has proven the exact opposite. Between the 1994 and 2012, 80 complaints have been filed with the commission. Eighty-five per cent of those submissions have been dismissed or terminated.

Meanwhile, these toxic tailings ponds continue to leak. An Environment Canada study released in February 2014 estimated that one tailings pond dam was leaking 6.5 million litres of polluted a day into the groundwater. Modelling suggests that a total of 11 to 12.6 million litres of tailings leak from the tailings ponds each day.

Further reading
First Nation disappointed by NAFTA commission decision on wild salmon (December 2014 blog)
Fish, wild salmon and polar bears to be considered by NAFTA commission (December 2013 blog)