With a 24-kilometre ice jam on the Athabasca River causing severe flooding in downtown Fort McMurray, Alberta, a local Indigenous advocacy group is raising flags about a lack of information on possible toxic releases from tar sands/oil sands tailings ponds and holding ponds located alongside the river.
“As a downstream community from the tar sands, we deal with everything that goes into the river and would feel the direct impacts of a tailings breach,” Keepers of the Water Chair Sam Gargan said in a release. He’s raising questions about emergency response plans, the current state of the tailings ponds, and the impacts of the flooding so far.
Keepers of the Water Interim Executive Director Jesse Cardinal said downstream communities like Fort Chipewyan and Fort Smith have been having trouble getting information on potential risks. “They really want to know what’s coming downstream to them because that’s their drinking water. It’s their fish,” she told The Energy Mix. But “even when you have proof, it’s hard to get the [Alberta] government to acknowledge it, and even if First Nations communities were aware of any tailings breaches, they’re often signed to agreements with the companies where they can’t speak publicly. So with all of these factors, it’s really hard to get the truth.”
The stakes are even higher, Cardinal added, with COVID-19 spreading in the region, the province’s environmental monitoring suspended during the pandemic, and access to fresh water even more important than usual.
“This is just a perfect example of why we need stronger environmental monitoring, not weaker,” she said. “We need the government assuring people that the environment and the water are healthy.”
Jess Sinclair, press secretary to Environment and Parks Minister Jason Nixon, said all dams associated with the province’s fossil resources are overseen by the Alberta Energy Regulator. “Currently, no tailings dams in Alberta are located within normally established river floodplains or are at risk in the vicinity of the Athabasca River,” she wrote in a statement.
“Provincial regulations provide comprehensive oversight regarding safety of dams, including tailings dams, by directing the owners to use the best applicable technology and practices in the design, construction, operation, monitoring, and decommissioning of these structures,” she added. “This includes design and construction processes with appropriate flood protection measures to ensure safety throughout the dam’s life cycle,” and the AER and dam owners routinely conduct “ehanced surveillance and inspections of tailings dam infrastructure, including flood protection works”.
The AER issued a routine statement indicating that the regulator and nearby tar sands/oil sands companies “are monitoring floodwaters in the Fort McMurray area closely. Companies have increased surveillance, and the AER is in regular contact. AER staff remain prepared to respond should the situation change.”
Elsewhere in the region, the ice jam and flooding brought serious damage and despair to Fort McMurray, a town still recovering from a massive wildfire in 2016. “Our community has seen devastation on all fronts,” Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo councillor Keith McGrath told the Financial Post. “People had just come out of the rebuild and now they see their house is flooded, so the mood is pretty sombre. It’s a travesty.”
Earlier this week, Fort McMurray requested military assistance to deal with the flood, volunteers were scrambling to place thousands of sandbags to protect the region’s only hospital, and Brian Jean, the former provincial opposition leader and local MLA whose family was one of 2,400 that lost their homes in the wildfire, reported that the new house was now under 10 feet of water.
“We don’t catch a break,” Jean said.