Some Indigenous communities in northern Alberta say they’re being handed a choice between terrible options as the federal government develops regulations to allow treated tailings from tar sands/oil sands operations to be released into the environment. One advocate is calling the prospect of tailings releases into the Athabasca River an “international human crime”.
It takes three to four barrels of water to produce one barrel of bitumen, CBC News reports. And under current rules, “companies must store any water used to extract oil during the mining process because it becomes toxic. The massive above-ground lakes are known as tailings ponds, which are harmful to wildlife and have resulted in the death of birds that land on the water, on multiple occasions.”
Indigenous groups in the northern part of the province have been concerned for years that tailings ponds could further pollute their land and drinking water, the news report adds. But with tar sands/oil sands production continuing, fossils intent on increasing their output, and the volume of toxic tailings now standing at about 1.4 trillion litres—the equivalent of 560,000 Olympic swimming pools stretching from Edmonton to Melbourne, Australia—the fossil industry and some scientists say the water “can be treated enough so it can be safely discharged”.
A Crown-Indigenous working group began discussing the new standard at the beginning of this year. Ottawa hopes to release draft regulations under the Fisheries Act in 2024 and finalize them in 2025. But some Indigenous and environmental groups are concerned the releases will cause “even more harm” to the Athabasca River, a lifeline for many of the communities, CBC says.
“First Nations and Métis Nations have complained for years how the oilsands, as well as other industries, have caused water volumes and quality to drop, which they say has caused fish populations to decrease sharply over the years and some species to disappear,” the national broadcaster writes. “Research has found elevated cancer rates in Fort Chipewyan, a community located north of Fort McMurray on the western tip of Lake Athabasca, and high levels of heavy metals, such as mercury, and arsenic in animals that are hunted and consumed in the region.”
Jesse Cardinal, executive director of Keepers of the Water, said neither of the options on offer should be acceptable to Indigenous communities—especially when the only barrier to a full clean-up is cost.
“I’m angry that we have to be having this discussion of what do we want to happen,” she told CBC. “The fact that they’re even entertaining releasing the tailings ponds into the Athabasca River—this is an international human crime.”
Cardinal said she “doesn’t understand why the oilsands sector is allowed to expand operations and cause more tailings while this issue remains unresolved,” CBC adds.
“We know that the industry has other options to treat the tailings ponds, but they cost a lot more money,” she said. “We’re saying do what’s right, not what’s fast and easy.”
University of Alberta tailings treatment specialist Mohamed Gamal El-Din told CBC it’s “not economically feasible” to use technologies that would make the water safe to drink, but available treatments can leave it clean enough for release, similar to sewage treatment systems in cities and towns across the country. “The biggest challenge is that we have a massive amount of water that needs to be treated,” he said.
That reality has fossils, regulators, and researchers worried about the risk of accidental release, with a dam failure or natural disaster triggering a torrent of toxic water. One such dam disaster in Brazil killed 270 people, CBC says. As they continue extracting bitumen, Alberta fossils are required to keep building tailings dams to hold the waste water in perpetuity, and “this scenario is not tolerable,” said Calgary-based water resources engineer Les Sawatzky.
“If the oilsands release is controlled and satisfies the appropriate criteria, then I would have more comfort than something that’s a huge phenomenon and uncontrolled at the moment,” agreed University of British Columbia engineering professor Greg Lawrence. “There’s been flooding in the Fraser Valley and that is of far greater concern, I would say, than any regulated and controlled release.”
Industry spokespeople add that the requirement to retain treated tailings water can prolong the process of reclaiming old extraction sites by decades. “The more water that’s stored onsite, the less of the site itself is able to be reclaimed until there’s an opportunity to release water and free up that space,” said Mining Association of Canada Vice President Brendan Marshall. He added that the regulatory process should change the channel to addressing water quality issues, rather than fretting about the large volume of tailings water in storage.
“If you have a lot of water that can be safely treated to an acceptable threshold, then gradually releasing that water over time will do that river no harm,” he told CBC.