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Federal study confirms tailings ponds leak into the Athabasca

What’s different about this study is that it’s ‘coming straight from the horse’s mouth,’ says First Nation spokesperson

Tim Querengesser is senior editor with Alberta Venture. Email Tim

Feb 20, 2014

by Tim Querengesser

A federal study released today confirms that contaminated water from tailings ponds in the oil sands is leaching into ground water and finding its way into the Athabasca River. While many studies have come to a similar conclusion, this is the first time that a report produced by Ottawa has echoed these findings.
What does this mean for those living downstream from the tailings ponds? Representatives for the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation say the study vindicates them for the concerns they have been raising about tailings ponds for years. And the study and its fallout will doubtlessly be added to the growing conversation about water quality, quantity and pricing, which I touched on in the January issue of Alberta Venture.
But to answer directly from an Aboriginal perspective in Alberta, I called Eriel Deranger, a spokesperson for the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation. Here’s a transcript of our conversation.

Tim Querengesser: What is the First Nation’s reaction to this report’s findings?

Eriel Deranger: One, it’s not really a new story, not for us. We’ve been privy to a lot of the internal conversation with industry for many, many years. We know the tailing ponds are leaching and leaking into the ground water. We’ve been saying this is a serious problem. But now there’s proof in the pudding that this is actually really happening, and it’s not by some third-party scientist that the government can further try to quash their credibility. This is coming straight from the horse’s mouth, so to speak.

TQ: Does this study’s findings have any bearing on Treaty rights?

ED: Absolutely. First Nations people have Treaty rights, and Treaty rights guarantee to us hunting, fishing, trapping, gathering and the ability to access our lands for cultural and spiritual procurement, and that’s supposed to be as long as the rivers flow and the sun shines. Unfortunately what we’re seeing is that our rivers might be flowing but they’re now flowing at a lower rate, and now we have proof that they are in fact being contaminated. Fish is the most important and central food systems in the north and when you talk about contaminated water systems, you’re talking about contaminating not just the water but everything that relies on those water systems. It’s impacting our treaty rights because those animals are being found to have higher contamination levels of mercury, pHs, selenium and other toxic heavy metals and contaminants, which is impacting our ability to safely access our Treaty rights.

TQ: News media often portray First Nations like yours as against oil sands development – that it’s a black and white sort of thing. Are there people within your First Nations who are in favour of oil sands development?

ED: I think that’s a really complex question. ACFN has gone on the record multiple times stating that we are not anti-development. It just so happens that the oil sands are Canada’s economic driver. It also happens to be the largest industrial project on the planet. So when one vocalizes opposition to something so big, it starts to become a conversation that elevates to a much higher level.
Now, yes, there are many members that benefit from the development of oil sands, absolutely, and we will never deny that. We have many members of the ACFN that have employment in the industry; we have businesses that have contracts with the industry. The issue is that we have not put in the safeguards. We have not put in proper reclamation standards, mitigation policies and ways to implement those policies. We have not done anything to actually look at creating really baseline flows and environmental and human-rights precautionary measures have not been taken into account.
There are some new policies coming out on surface-water quality and quantity in the province. And we have stated that we need to have what we’re calling an ‘Aboriginal Base Flow,’ that the Athabasca River must not go below this certain threshold, and that if it does that licenses be stopped for those times and then re-start once the water flow continues to go above what our base flow is. Basically it’s been fought by government and industry, because those base flows that we’re requesting would mean that the water withdrawals would have to decrease significantly from the Athabasca system, which would impact production. And so the dollar is coming before the actual needs, not just for First Nations but for the longevity of the ecosystem that sustain these First Nations. These are the same ecosystems that sustain the entire planet.
I don’t know that it’s feasible to continue business as usual in the way that Alberta wants to.

TQ: ACFN has pulled out of joint oil sands monitoring program created by Alberta and Ottawa (and which conducted the study). From the outside, it might appear that you’ve abdicated your way of changing things on water. So why did ACFN do that?

ED: We pulled out of JOSM for very valid reasons. The program was given a $50 million budget from the government; its mandate was to incorporate First Nation culture, knowledge and people into the implementation and development of the project. Of that $50 million, not a single cent was allocated to doing First Nation engagement, implementation or development. We sat at the table with JOSM along with other FN communities for over a year, close to two years, all completely on our dollar. There was no money to do traditional ecological knowledge, to implement some of our already existing community-based monitoring programs into the overall JOSM program. They basically just sat there and we talked in circles for two years, and again, with absolutely zero funding for First Naitons. We pulled out because the government was unwilling to waver on their positions and we had serious concerns with the way the program was running and yet they basically completely uncompromising. That’s a serious problem. It gave the optics that by having us engaged in conversations with them that they were addressing our concerns but in actuality but talk in circles to us and explain to us why we couldn’t do what we thought was needed in order to make the program successful.

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