Canada is taking unprecedented steps to stop the Commission on Environmental Co-operation (CEC), a tripartite body set up to resolve environmental disputes under the North American Free Trade Agreement, from investigating the impact of tailings ponds produced by the Alberta tar sands/oil sands.
The tailings ponds “cover more than 176 square kilometres and contain a toxic mixture of water, clay, and chemicals, what’s left over when the oil is removed,” CBC reports. “They’ve become a symbol of the environmental footprint of oilsands production,” and “a touchy political issue for both the Alberta and Canadian governments.”
Dan McDougall, Environment Canada’s assistant deputy minister of international affairs, has repeatedly instructed the Commission to suspend its review of the tailings ponds. “To my knowledge we have never received such a firm position as we have from Canada in this case,” said CEC legal officer Hugh Benevides. “I think it’s safe to say it’s a new approach.”
Two environmental groups and three private citizens had asked the Commission to investigate whether Canada was breaking its own Fisheries Act by failing to prevent tailings leaks into the Athabasca River and nearby creeks in northern Alberta.
“It was important for us know whether this was happening, whether environmental laws were being broken, and whether the government is upholding those laws or ignoring them,” Dale Marshall of Environmental Defence told CBC’s Margo McDiarmid.