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Keep toxic tailings out of the athabasca

No more broken promises: holding government and industry accountable for toxic tailings ponds

Since time immemorial the Athabasca River has been a powerful source of life in what is currently called Alberta. A Canadian Heritage River – a designation given to rivers with “outstanding natural, cultural and recreational values” – the river and its basin is one of the world’s “most ecologically significant wetlands,” and serves as a home to a variety of flora and fauna, including white and black spruce, balsam and alpine firs, bears, bighorn sheep, the endangered whooping crane, and the world’s largest herd of bison, among many, many others. It is, and long has been, home to many communities of people, including the Dane-zaa, Sekani, Ktunaxa, Secwepemc (Shuswap), Salish, Nakoda, Woodland Cree, Chipewyan, and Metis.

But the Athabasca River’s long history as a source of life has also, ironically, put it in serious danger. Millions of years of ecological evolution and the Earth’s natural rhythms of flourishing and decay formed what has become the Alberta tar sands, a sprawling mass of extractive development that has consumed enough land that it is visible from space. Part of this sprawl includes tailings ponds, highly toxic pools containing nearly 500 billion litres of water, sand, clay, and residual bitumen that contain mercury, arsenic, benzene, and naphthenic acids that pose a catastrophic risk to life.

Despite promises from industry and the government that these tailings ponds would be cleaned up responsibly, the ponds have only grown – according to Environmental Defense, the toxic tailings now cover 300 square kilometers of land. This poisoned water and sediment is already leaching into the groundwater at the rate of millions of gallons per day – and now the federal and provincial governments are preparing regulations that may allow these pollutants to be released directly into the Athabasca River.

Tailings are highly toxic – and there’s no evidence that treating them fixes this

There’s significant evidence that the poisonous tailings already leaching into the groundwater are causing severe health effects including rare cancers, primarily in Indigenous communities in the river basin. Elevated levels of heavy metals such as cadmium, mercury, and selenium have been found in the flesh of moose, ducks, beavers, and other traditional food sources, and the water contained in tailings is so profoundly toxic that some conservationists fear that if a single flock of migratory whooping cranes lands on one of the ponds, it could wipe out the remaining population of the highly endangered species.

The argument from industry is that the water dumped into the Athabasca River would be treated, and the federal government claims that the dumping plan will only proceed if the water can be treated to “drinking water quality.” But no independent studies have ever been conducted that demonstrate that treating the water to that level is even possible. And there’s no reason to trust either industry or the government when it comes to keeping their word about cleaning up the tar sands.

On 26 June 2017, Environmental Defense Canada and the Natural Resources Defense Council filed a submission asserting that the federal government has failed to enforce the Fisheries Act with respect to the tar sands and its tailings. This charge that was confirmed in 2020 when the Commission for Environmental Cooperation found that the Government of Canada has failed in their duty to prosecute oil sands producers over the leaching of tailings chemicals into the ground and surface water.

The Alberta provincial government has similarly failed in their responsibility to hold oil companies accountable for the pollution generated by industry. They promised to clean up the oil sands over a decade ago, including tailings ponds, but no action has ever been taken. In 2020 they temporarily suspended environmental monitoring of the tailings ponds demonstrating a lack of commitment to taking the scope of the problem seriously.

The poison won’t stay in Alberta

Although the proposed regulations would be limited to Alberta, dumping toxic tailings into the Athabasca River is a problem for everyone. Waterways know no borders. The river and its basin occupy approximately 800,000 acres of complex and interconnected water systems – encompassing almost one quarter of Alberta’s landmass. In addition to its dozens of tributaries, the Athabasca River also feeds into Lake Athabasca which flows into the Slave River, joining the Mackenzie River, and eventually pouring into the Arctic Ocean. These are waters we use for drinking, for cooking, for bathing, and for recreation. Toxic tailings threaten this vital life source, and once tailings are released, there is no ability to control where the poison flows.

But Albertans are fighting back – The Council of Canadians Edmonton Chapter have allied with Keepers of the Water for a three-part symposium series (online and in-person) to educate the public on what tailings are, why keeping them out of the water matters, and what can be done to stop this injustice from going forward.

Session one:

Recorded on October 5th, 2022.

Tailings: Past and Present

Learn more about the history of tailings, where we are now, and the dangers posed by the proposed dumping of improperly treated tailings into the Athabasca River.

Session two:

Recorded on October 26th, 2022

Indigenous Rights, Knowledge, and Tailings

Learn more about how Indigenous communities are currently dealing with the toxic legacy of the tar sands and how traditional ecological knowledge and legal frameworks like UNDRIP relate to this issue.

Session three:

Recorded on November 16th, 2022

Tailings and a Just Transition

Learn more about how addressing proposed tailings dumping is an opportunity to transition workers and communities towards a more just future for all of us as we ensure that polluters pay for the mess they have made.

We invite you to join in this fight, not only because a threat to water anywhere is a threat to water everywhere, but because a decision to allow industry to dump tailings pond water into the Athabasca River could have precedent-setting implications for other places where tailings ponds and similar industrial waste exist.

Voice your concern by sending a letter to Environment Minister Steven Guilbeault, demanding that tailings regulations ensure that no tailings will be released into the Athabasca River.

Alex Birrell

Alex Birrell is one of the Council of Canadians Communications Officers, specializing in Research and Analysis.