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NAFTA Panel Questions Canada’s Enforcement of Tar Sands/Oil Sands Tailings Ponds

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Canada’s management of 1.3 trillion litres of contaminated water in tar sands/oil sands tailings ponds may soon be subject to international scrutiny, after a NAFTA watchdog “concluded there were serious questions about how the federal government enforces the Fisheries Act in relation to the giant ponds,” The Canadian Press reports.

Canada’s response [1] does not provide sufficient information about why Canada did not undertake enforcement actions,” concluded the Montreal-based Commission on Environmental Cooperation. The commission was responding to a 2017 complaint by the Natural Resources Defense Council, Environmental Defence Canada, and a member of the K’ahsho Got’ine Dene First Nation. Its report will trigger a vote by the three NAFTA countries on whether the commission should investigate the issue.

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The 2017 complaint asserted [3]that no company has ever been prosecuted for allowing pond water to leak into and contaminate the Athabasca River,” CP states. “A 2014 Environment Canada study backed suspicions that leaks were occurring when it ‘fingerprinted’ toxins found in groundwater and matched them to chemicals in the tailings.” While the report “didn’t quantify how much was leaking,” the news agency adds, “previous studies estimated it at 6.5 million litres a day.”

The Canadian government is telling the commission the “fingerprint” study was inconclusive. “In 2014, following five years of effort to inspect tailings ponds with no reasonable grounds to support violations of the act, (Environment Canada) redirected its proactive enforcement efforts toward other regional and national issues,” one federal report stated.

But “it is hard to understand why the Canadian government decided to pull environmental inspectors from the tar sands region in 2014, after those inspectors found toxic chemicals from tailings ponds that exceeded government guidelines,” Environmental Defence said in a release. The ruling “showed clear disregard for the impacts that tailings ponds have on human and environmental health,” after “government scientists determined that those toxins were likely leaking into the Athabasca River.”

While the NAFTA process calls for the three countries to vote within 60 days, CP says the deadline has been missed in past cases. And Environmental Defence National Program Manager Dale Marshall acknowledged the consequences for Canada would be limited if the country were eventually found to have failed to enforce its own regulations.

“There’s not a lot repercussions, other than public shaming,” he told CP.