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Alberta’s Toxic Tailings Ponds Grew 90 Million Cubic Metres in 2020, Provincial Figures Show

Despite a slowdown in oil production and repeat promises to clean up after themselves, fossil operators in Alberta’s Athabasca tar sands/oil sands allowed toxic tailings ponds to grow 90 million cubic metres in 2020, according to an analysis of provincial data. 

The holding ponds, which “contain dangerous levels of mercury, arsenic, cyanide, benzene, and naphthenic acids,” now encompass an area nearly twice the size of Metro Vancouver, say Environmental Defence Canada and the Indigenous-led Keepers of the Water.  

The latest numbers on the growing volume of tailings come from a newly and “quietly” released report by the Alberta Energy Regulator, which found that “operators reached neither their own projections nor regulatory standards for decreased volumes of fluids in the ponds.”

In fact, the report notes, “oil companies like Suncor, Syncrude, and Canadian Natural Resources Limited (CNRL) stopped monitoring their tailings ponds during COVID.”

Aliénor Rougeot, energy program manager at Environmental Defence, called on the federal government to “finally step in and regulate what has become one of the most toxic sites in North America.”

To date, the groups say, the feds have done quite the opposite: far from regulating the tailings ponds, Ottawa has caved to oil industry pressure and is “developing regulations that allow oil companies to dump toxic tailings into the Athabasca River,” a process that has been roundly condemned by Indigenous groups and environmental organizations.

“The oil industry keeps getting away with doing nothing about its toxic tailings while my people are the sacrifice,” said Keepers of the Water Co-Chair Jean L’Hommecourt, a Denesuline resident of Fort McKay, which is located on the Athabasca River. 

“We can smell the toxins in the air, they’re in our water and have been for years, but no one in government cares,” she added.