Don’t you know that tailings ponds are toxic?

In this week's newsletter, we talk to reporter Drew Anderson about tailings ponds in northern Alberta, introduce a new Narwhal and celebrate some more awards wins

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A comparison of two satellite images of tailings ponds between 1975 and 2020
Sometimes a picture is worth 300 square kilometres.

A lot has changed since the 1970s — including the footprint of the tailings ponds lakes that store toxic waste from Alberta’s oilsands operations. Just how much are they growing? They could now cover a large chunk of Toronto, or the city of Vancouver twice over.

That’s according to a new report from Environmental Defence and the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society, who together reviewed satellite imagery to map the impacts of the tailings on people, wildlife and the natural environment.
A map of Toronto with scaled tailings ponds covering the city

Our Prairies reporter Drew Anderson dug into the details for this story that helps capture the scale of the change over time, with images of the growth in five-year increments.

“I’ve always been aware it’s a huge problem and the so-called ponds are large,” Drew told me, “but I didn’t quite realize the cumulative scale of them and the complete lack of certified reclamation.”

Yes, you read that right: the Alberta Energy Regulator told Drew that no tailings deposits have ever been certified as reclaimed. This is probably a good time to mention the estimated cleanup cost for all oilsands operations is pegged at $33 billion, and only $1.5 billion had been collected from companies for security as of last year (the oil industry’s track record for paying its bills isn’t exactly encouraging — just ask Alberta farmers).
Aerial photo of a tailings pond

And as industry and the province figure out what to do about these ponds — dumping the wastewater into the Athabasca River is one option on the table — nearby Indigenous communities continue to live with the damage to their traditional territories and food security.

“It’s indescribable, I guess, because it smells like gases, it smells like chemicals,” says Jean L’Hommecourt, a Denesuline woman who lives just outside of Fort McKay, which is surrounded by the toxic waste.

L’Hommecourt, who provided input for the report, says her community can’t eat the fish or drink the water. Plus, there’s worry about what the chemicals might be doing to the moose they rely on as a source of food.

“When you breathe it in, it kind of permeates through your nose and you can even have that taste in your mouth.”

So what is Alberta doing about it? Can tailings deposits ever truly be reclaimed? And what about regulations that were meant to be in place? Drew dives into all of these questions, and more, in his piece.

Take care and don’t let your problems balloon to 300 square kilometres,

Arik Ligeti
Director of audience
Headshot of Arik Ligeti
Photo of wild caribou in NWT.

The Narwhal in the world

We’re celebrating more award wins! Photojournalists Amber Bracken and Pat Kane took home medals for coverage of RCMP raids on Wet’suwet’en territory and the collaborative efforts to save vanishing Arctic caribou, respectively. 

The pair swept the photo storytelling category at the Digital Publishing Awards, with Amber receiving the gold and Pat taking the silver. Amber also nabbed the gold in the photo essay and photojournalism category at the National Magazine Awards.

As our managing editor Mike De Souza noted, this type of award-winning work wouldn’t be possible without The Narwhal’s 4,500-plus members who give whatever they can each month or year (join the pod!).

“The Narwhal’s members are funding work that is changing how other Canadian newsrooms report on the climate and biodiversity crises in both words and images,” Mike said.
Photo of audience fellow Karan Saxena sitting on a park bench

Get to know a Narwhal

Another new Narwhal? That’s right. We’ve been upping our engagement efforts lately — and the person behind it all is audience fellow Karan Saxena. 

Karan comes to us after stints at Xtra Magazine and 5X Press, a publication dedicated to covering South Asian youth culture in Canada.

He’s putting those skills to work in short order: this very newsletter wouldn’t have been possible without Karan’s top-notch work behind the scenes. And if you haven’t been following us on Instagram, you should probably fix that.

I spoke with Karan about what authentic engagement looks like, the keys to building, or rebuilding, reader trust and the guilty pleasure that’s “so antithetical to who I am.”

Learn all about our social media savant in this Q&A.

This week in The Narwhal

A woman being arrested in B.C.'s Kootenay region
I watched my mom get arrested at a logging blockade
By Louis Bockner
Arrests of 17 people in B.C.'s Kootenay region raise questions about peaceful protest and show the RCMP approach to protests is changing, one lawyer says.

Aerial view of Nootka Island
‘They were forced off their territory’: all eyes on precedent-setting Vancouver Island title case
By Judith Lavoie

Photo of Hilary Young with mountains and a river in the background
Canmore council makes final plea to the courts to avoid being forced to accept huge development
By Drew Anderson


What we’re reading

Canada’s nuclear waste liabilities total billions of dollars. Is a landfill site near the Ottawa River the best way to extinguish them?
Tribal Hatcheries and the Road to Restoration
Gif of dog holding shower head in mouth in a bathtub, wearing a shower cap
When you want to play in a “pond” but they’re all contaminated. Sign up for our newsletter — it’s up to code with conservation regulations.
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We’re tripling our Prairies coverage
The Narwhal’s newly minted Prairies bureau is here to bring you stories on energy and the environment you won’t find anywhere else. Stay tapped in by signing up for a weekly dose of our ad‑free, independent journalism.
We’re tripling our Prairies coverage
The Narwhal’s newly minted Prairies bureau is here to bring you stories on energy and the environment you won’t find anywhere else. Stay tapped in by signing up for a weekly dose of our ad‑free, independent journalism.