At COP15, the United Nations Biodiversity Conference, Canada focused on biodiversity protection, meaningful partnership with Indigenous Peoples and science-based policies. 

Yet when the rubber hits the road on each of these priorities with cases like the oilsands tailings ponds, Canada is headed the wrong way. It is time for the government to put a stop to the oil industry’s toxic takeover of lands.

Tailings ponds are industry-made reservoirs the size of lakes that store nearly 1.4 trillion litres of toxic byproduct from oil production. They cover vast swaths of the boreal forest in Northern Alberta, currently taking up over 300 square kilometres — enough to cover the city of Paris three times over. They contain dangerous chemicals such as ammonia, lead, mercury, benzene and naphthenic acids, and are known to leak and evaporate their toxic content into the surrounding environment. 

Great Blue Heron stands on a rock before a pink sky
Conservation advocates have long raised concerns about birds such as great blue herons, landing in oilsands tailings ponds. More than one million migratory birds fly over the reach each year. Photo: Carol Linnitt / The Narwhal

More than one million migratory birds fly over the oilsands region during their spring and fall migrations, including endangered species such as whooping cranes. Birds mistake tailings “ponds” for safe rest stops along their migratory route and either perish or suffer later on due to the acute toxicity of the mixture.

Fish have been spotted with tumours, while Indigenous communities using the land report a noticeable decline in wildlife in the area, from big caribou to small muskrats. The very existence of the “ponds” destroyed hundreds of square kilometres of carbon-sequestering peatlands, which cannot be restored.

Tailings pollution in the oilsands is a symbol of colonial injustice. Since the creation of the “ponds,” the nations downstream of the oilands, including Mikisew Cree First Nation, have been participating in federal and provincial consultations, monitoring programs and environmental assessments. 

Not once in nearly fifty years, since the oilsands operations began had there been an acknowledgment of the risks posed by the tailings — despite the nations voicing their concerns for ecological and human wellbeing and asking for adequate risk studies to be conducted.

Government considering allowing oilsands companies to release tailings ponds into river

Now, a new plan is being hatched in the oilsands: oil companies want to flush partially treated tailings ponds into the Athabasca River, which the Fisheries Act currently forbids. 

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The Narwhal’s 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 covering energy on the Prairies

Canada has been considering obliging the industry’s request. But if Canada is sincere about its commitment to science-based policy, it should listen to the scientists calling for an independent risk assessment of the proposed release. Any authorized release should also commit to the highest possible water-quality standards.  

The ecological value of the potentially impacted area can not be overstated. The Athabasca River is one of the headwaters of the Mackenzie River Basin, the largest watershed in Canada and the most intact large-scale ecosystem on the continent. As an integral part of the Arctic drainage basin, it is the Arctic Amazon. The nearby Wood Buffalo National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is already in jeopardy due to industrial activity in the area and the threat of tailings release.

Not far from the oilsands, Wood Buffalo National Park, itself a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is in jeopardy due to industrial activity in the area. Photo: Louis Bockner / Sierra Club BC

The communities and species of the area already feel the cumulative impacts of oilsands exploitation and other industrial activity. While operators tout the safety of their operations, there are already numerous ways in which oilsands waste is released to the environment, from aerial emissions and deposition of volatile compounds, seepage to groundwater and release of other industrial wastewaters. 

Mikisew Cree First Nation experiences high rates of auto-immune disease and rare cancers, especially bile duct cancer. Despite these alarming cases, there has been no baseline health study to attempt to understand the causes. 

Canada must seek consent from impacted nations to release tailings ponds fluids

Canada must make a public commitment that it will not move forward in authorizing the release without the consent of the impacted nations. Dene lawyer Daniel T’seleie argues Canada has a legal obligation to obtain the consent of all nations impacted by the release due to its passing of Bill C-15, which stipulates “Canada must take all measures necessary to ensure that its laws are consistent with the United Nations Declaration on the Right of Indigenous Peoples.”

An aerial view of the Alberta oilsands
Alberta’s oilsands tailings ponds are the largest in the world. The federal government is developing regulations to allow for treated tailings water to be released back into the environment. Photo: Alex MacLean

Canada must also bring Indigenous nations, oilsands operators and relevant provincial authorities to the same table and negotiate a plan for fulsome reclamation of the area, paid for by the operators. 

Finally, Canada must ensure that solutions to the tailings issue are supported by thorough and independent risk assessment to align with Minister of Environment and Climate Change Steven Guilbeault’s statement during COP15 that “this government’s core value is science underpinning policy.”

We will be watching the government’s actions very closely to see if they align with those values.

Like a kid in a candy store
When those boxes of heavily redacted documents start to pile in, reporters at The Narwhal waste no time in looking for kernels of news that matter the most. Just ask our Prairies reporter Drew Anderson, who gleefully scanned through freedom of information files like a kid in a candy store, leading to pretty damning revelations in Alberta this spring. Long story short: the government wasn’t being forthright when it claimed its pause on new renewable energy projects wasn’t political. Just like that, our small team was again leading the charge on a pretty big story

In an oil-rich province like Alberta, that kind of reporting is crucial. But look at our investigative work on the Coastal GasLink pipeline to the west, or our Greenbelt reporting out in Ontario. They all highlight one thing: those with power over our shared natural world don’t want you to know how — or why — they call the shots. And we try to disrupt that.

Our journalism is powered by people just like you. We never take corporate ad dollars, or put this public-interest information behind a paywall. Here’s the thing: we need 300 new members to join this month to meet our budget. Will you join the pod of Narwhals that make a difference by helping us uncover some of the most important stories of our time?
We’ve got big plans for 2024
When those boxes of heavily redacted documents start to pile in, reporters at The Narwhal waste no time in looking for kernels of news that matter the most. Just ask our Prairies reporter Drew Anderson, who gleefully scanned through freedom of information files like a kid in a candy store, leading to pretty damning revelations in Alberta this spring. Long story short: the government wasn’t being forthright when it claimed its pause on new renewable energy projects wasn’t political. Just like that, our small team was again leading the charge on a pretty big story

In an oil-rich province like Alberta, that kind of reporting is crucial. But look at our investigative work on the Coastal GasLink pipeline to the west, or our Greenbelt reporting out in Ontario. They all highlight one thing: those with power over our shared natural world don’t want you to know how — or why — they call the shots. And we try to disrupt that.

Our journalism is powered by people just like you. We never take corporate ad dollars, or put this public-interest information behind a paywall. Here’s the thing: we need 300 new members to join this month to meet our budget. Will you join the pod of Narwhals that make a difference by helping us uncover some of the most important stories of our time?

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The Narwhal’s reporters uncover energy stories that send shockwaves throughout Canada. But they can’t do it alone — we need to add 300 new members this month to meet our budget. Will you support crucial climate reporting that makes an impact?
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The Narwhal’s reporters uncover energy stories that send shockwaves throughout Canada. But they can’t do it alone — we need to add 300 new members this month to meet our budget. Will you support crucial climate reporting that makes an impact?