Toxic tailings do not belong in the Athabasca River

Releasing more polluted mine tailings into the Athabasca River may soon become a lot easier for oil sands companies. According to The Globe, the federal and Alberta governments are working with companies on new regulations to authorize the discharge of treated effluent.

This follows on recent revelations from a leaked Alberta Energy Regulator presentation that in a “worst-case scenario” total liabilities for oil and gas operations could be as much as $260-billion. Taxpayers have purchased a used pipeline from Kinder Morgan for $4.5-billion so the industry can ship its product to unspecified markets, which we are assured will be profitable. The industry is also demanding weakened review procedures to fast track new development, despite the oil-sands expansion likely making it impossible for Canada to meet international commitments for greenhouse gas reductions. Are there no limits to the concessions that we must make to facilitate this ill-conceived industry?

In the 1960s when oil (then called tar) sands were in their infancy, regulators approved the use of tailings ponds to dispose of fluid fine tailings (FFT), swallowing the industry assurances that pollutants would quickly settle and Mother Nature would neutralize any toxins. Unfortunately, the assurances were wrong, so bigger tailings ponds became necessary. The industry was allowed to expand without solving the FFT dilemma, so soon the toxic ponds resembled a moderate-size lake district in extent. Simply put, pollutants did not disappear because they were associated with tiny clay particles that required hundreds of years to settle, and some contaminants were too toxic to be decomposed by normal biological processes.

In 2008, public outrage over the burgeoning tailings ponds caused the Alberta government to pass Directive 074, designed to eliminate the discharge of FFT. Unfortunately, compliance proved too difficult for the industry. After grandfathering release of FFT for several years, regulators in 2015 replaced 074 with Directive 085, which once again allows the release of FFT into toxic ponds.

Several new mines were approved under the promise that FFT could be covered with fresh water and turned into delightful productive lakes. Environmental review panels approved more than 30 such “end pit lakes,” despite the fact that only one large-scale experiment was undertaken to test the end-pit-to-recreational-lake fantasy. After seven years, results have shown little promise. In 2018, the bad news started to leak out, that after a half-century of operation, oil-sands companies and regulators still don’t seem to know how to deal with FFT.

Meanwhile, more than one trillion litres of FFT have been allowed to accumulate in tailings ponds, some of near great-lake magnitude.

The latest desperate proposal would allow toxic tailings to be slowly discharged into the Athabasca River, using the age-old industry trick that “dilution is the solution to pollution.” But the river downstream of the oil sands is already polluted enough to cause some concerns.

A wide variety of toxic metals and organic compounds are already being released to the river and the air, confirmed by an upgraded monitoring program run co-operatively by provincial and federal agencies. Fish and the eggs of fish-eating birds contain mercury high enough to require consumption restrictions for humans who rely on them for food. Exposure of fish embryos to even low levels of bitumen in water causes increased mortality and a high rate of malformations in surviving embryos. Detectable concentrations of organic compounds, some toxic or carcinogenic, are found in water and sediments. Both traditional knowledge and scientific studies have shown that the high rates of malformations persist into adult fish, with incidences similar to those found near Superfund sites (areas in the United States that require long-term cleanup because of the most hazardous pollution).

These were among the findings that prompted UNESCO to consider downgrading the status of Wood Buffalo National Park at the mouths of the Athabasca and Slave Rivers from “heritage” status to the list of “world heritage in danger.”

Indigenous peoples downstream of the oil sands have largely ceased eating fish or drinking water from the Athabasca River. With the proposed increased discharge of toxins, the area affected could expand farther down the system to the Slave and Mackenzie Rivers and adjacent communities. At best, the situation would be a violation of the terms of Treaty 8, which guarantees the livelihood of the area’s Indigenous peoples, a clear violation of human rights. The plan to dump toxic tailings into the river should be scrapped. Canadians have been catering to the oil sands long enough.

David Schindler is Professor Emeritus of Ecology, University of Alberta and the first recipient of the Stockholm Water Prize (1991). Maude Barlow is Honorary Chairperson of the Council of Canadians and author of the upcoming book Whose Water is it Anyway? Taking Water Protection into Public Hands. This opinion editorial was originally published in The Globe and Mail.