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Federal government questioned over leaking tailings ponds in Alberta

The secretariat asked Canadian environment officials to explain documented cases of contaminated tailings water being discharged into Jackpine Creek, Beaver Creek, McLean Creek and the Athabasca River, and noted that Environment Canada expressed concern that tailings ponds would be discharged into fish-bearing waters during an assessment of Shell Canada’s Jackpine project. As part of that assessment, Shell acknowledged “some seepage” would occur, the commission said.

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By Marty Klinkenberg, Edmonton Journal December 12, 2013

EDMONTON – A North American trade body has asked Ottawa to respond to allegations that it has failed to enforce its own laws when it comes to oilsands tailings ponds.

The environmental secretariat has given the government 30 days to respond to allegations that it has failed to enforce the federal Fisheries Act by allowing the ponds to leak contaminants into the Athabasca River watershed.

The Commission for Environmental Cooperation, a body created to monitor enforcement of environmental regulations in Canada, the United States and Mexico, could launch a formal review of the federal government’s procedures if dissatisfied with its response.

The commission lacks the ability to file formal charges but its review process includes publishing its findings, which could tarnish Canada’s reputation internationally at a time it has been lobbying on behalf of the Keystone XL Pipeline and championing the oilsands as a source of clean energy.

The commission spent three years examining complaints from the Environmental Defence Canada, the Washington-based Natural Resources Defense Council and citizens living downstream before deciding the allegations met the threshold required to proceed.

The complaints allege that tailings ponds are contaminating ground and surface water, and that the government has failed to prosecute infractions or enact regulations that would prohibit the discharge. Individual complainants included John Rigney of Fort Chipewyan, a special projects director for the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation.

“As far back as 1991 (companies) assured us that tailings ponds would leak no further than two metres into the ground in 1,000 years,” Rigney said. “I feel I was lied to.”

A spokesman for Canada’s environment ministry did not respond to a request for comment, nor did a policy analyst the commission identified as the government contact dealing with the complaint.

The secretariat asked Canadian environment officials to explain documented cases of contaminated tailings water being discharged into Jackpine Creek, Beaver Creek, McLean Creek and the Athabasca River, and noted that Environment Canada expressed concern that tailings ponds would be discharged into fish-bearing waters during an assessment of Shell Canada’s Jackpine project.

As part of that assessment, Shell acknowledged “some seepage” would occur, the commission said.

“What we want to see is the problems fixed so that the environmental impacts are minimized,” said Gillian McEachern, the climate and energy program director for Environmental Defence. “We want government to start enforcing laws that we have on the books, and to make sure companies are reprimanded for violations to occur.”

With files from The Canadian Press

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