Alberta tailings waste could pollute Athabasca River, say Keepers of the Water

An Indigenous environmental group is sounding the alarm over the proposed dumping of treated tailings pond water from the Alberta oil industry into the Athabasca River.

Jesse Cardinal, executive director of Keepers of the Water, questioned whether the move is environmentally friendly.

“The Alberta government and the corporations are saying that it’s safe to dump the tailings,” she told leaders at a recent Dene National Special Assembly in the Northwest Territories.

“We have a science team that is taking the corporation’s information, their science information, reading it, understanding it, deciphering it to understand that it’s not safe. There’s still saline, high levels of saline, and something called naphthenic acids (-that are toxic to wildlife – heavy metals, chlorides and salts).”

The plan, which is awaiting word from the federal government, could come into effect by 2023. It would allow oil companies to release treated water from tailings ponds into Alberta waterways.

Fresh water

Cardinal, from the Métis community of Kikino in northern Alberta, says the fresh water of the Athabasca River that eventually flows into Great Slave Lake in the N.W.T. must be protected.

“Naphthenic acid is cancer-causing and it affects hormones,”she said. “It affects hormones and people, and it affects hormones and animals.

“Saline, any level of saline, and fresh water? It’s like salt; it’s like putting salt in water. It raises the temperature of the water. Water has to be cold for fish to live in and water has to be cold for it to remain fresh for us to drink it.”

Great Slave Lake travels through Dene territory before emptying into the Arctic Ocean.

“We’re always affected by what happens to the water from these tailings ponds,” noted Daniel T’Seleie, outreach manager for Keepers of the Water.

‘Little influence’

“But we have very, very, little influence or opportunity to participate in any decision-making about what happens around these tailings ponds (because) most of the activity there is under provincial jurisdiction.”

The Alberta government has introduced new regulations forcing oil companies to clean up their sites when they leave, so the companies are looking for a place to put the tailings sludge after they treat it.

Keepers of the Water further told the Dene Assembly that Canada has not obtained the free prior and informed consent of Indigenous northerners – a legal requirement of the United Nations Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP).

T’Seleie, of the Dene Métis community of Fort Good along the Mackenzie River in N.W.T., said opposition needs to be registered now as the federal government is close to releasing its formal discussion documents and draft regulations.

“Assuming that these regulations get drafted in,” he said, “the release of treated tailings could begin as early as 2025. So there is a few years, but the longer this process goes without people pushing back on it and getting their messages out there, the more difficult it’s going to be to actually stop these regulations.”

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