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Advocates call for prosecutions after oil sands tailings found to contaminate groundwater

by Mark Sabourin
EcoLog, 9/11/2020 10:15:00 AM

The Commission for Environmental Cooperation (CEC), the Canada-US-Mexico environmental body formed under NAFTA and continued under its successor, has reported that there is scientifically valid evidence that tailings water from Alberta’s oil sands is seeping into adjacent groundwater.

The report, "Alberta Tailings Ponds II. Factual Record regarding Submission SEM-17-001", falls well short of a condemnation of the oil sands, but the organizations that initiated the action say it’s clear evidence that the federal government is not enforcing its own laws, thereby risking the health of First Nations and the ecosystem.

For 10 years, Environmental Defence Canada and others have been trying to use the CEC process to compel Environment and Climate Change Canada to prosecute oil sands operators under the Fisheries Act. The recently released report, known as a “factual record,” stems from a 2017 submission filed by Environmental Defence Canada, the U.S.-based Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), and Canadian resident Daniel T’seleie.

The CEC’s factual record concludes that there's little scientific evidence of surface water contamination from oil sands tailing ponds, but that there is evidence of groundwater contamination in certain situations.

The federal government has maintained that it is impossible to distinguish between naturally-occurring contamination and contamination caused by seepage from tailings ponds to the level of certainty required to pursue enforcement action. The factual record finds that the use of mass spectrometry-based analytical methods in combination with other geochemical analyses can not only identify tailings pond contamination in water, but could even identify its source. There are uncertainties, however, including a lack of samples from exiting tailings ponds, and the fact that the leading edge of the contamination plume may be decades old and chemically different from a current sample.

Although a factual record from the CEC may prove embarrassing to a government, the CEC cannot force it to act.

Speaking to CBC, federal Environment and Climate Change Minister Jonathan Wilkinson said that tailings ponds were initially intended as temporary measures.

“In the long term, we need to find solutions to how we’re actually going to address these so that we don’t have the tailings ponds,” he said.

Dale Marshall, National Climate Program Manager with Environmental Defence, says the government needs to do something about it now.

“Canada must begin enforcing the Fisheries Act to prosecute these oil sands polluters and force them to clean up the over one trillion litres of tailings ponds that have been produced by oil sands operations,” he said in a statement.

“Canada’s federal government should prosecute tar sands polluters under the Fisheries Act, period,” added Anthony Swift, Canada Program Director with the NRDC.

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