Oil Sands Threaten Water Resources in Alberta, NWT

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Current water management practices cannot protect water in northern Alberta and the Northwest Territories from the impacts of oil sands development, according to a new report by the Pembina Institute.

The report, The Waters That Bind Us: Transboundary Implications of Oil Sands Development, recommends that new oil sands lease sales and oil sands approvals be suspended until stronger environmental rules to protect water are put in place.

The Mackenzie River Basin links water resources in Alberta’s oil sands region with communities downstream. Oil sands development uses large quantities of water and produces large amounts of toxic waste, posing risks to water resources in the basin.

“Downstream communities are asking for greater accountability from the regulatory bodies responsible for oil sands development,” says Peggy Holroyd, lead author of the report and Director of the Pembina Institute’s Arctic Energy Solutions program. “We need strong and effective transboundary environmental rules to ensure that the water resources that northern residents depend on are protected for the long term.”

The report includes six recommendations for improving water management and minimizing risks to water resources from oil sands development. They call on legislators to complete a transboundary water agreement between Alberta and the Northwest Territories, to stop issuing water use licences until the agreement is complete, and to prohibit the production of liquid tailings for new oil sands projects.

Current oil sands projects are now licensed to divert more than 550 million cubic metres of freshwater from the rivers and aquifers in the Athabasca Basin each year. Water used in oil sands development becomes contaminated and cannot be returned to the natural water cycle. Instead, it is stored in tailings ponds, where pollutants can sometimes leak into the surrounding groundwater, soil and surface water. Some of these tailings ponds are built directly beside the Athabasca River, where a dam failure could cause an ecological disaster.

“The Pembina Institute recommends a number of changes to water management on both sides of the border, including the completion of a transboundary agreement between Alberta and the Northwest Territories. The agreement should include a system to track harmful changes to the quality of the downstream watershed,” says Holroyd.

Residents living downstream of oil sands development in Alberta and the Northwest Territories are becoming increasingly politically active in an effort to protect the region’s water. They have organized community meetings and conferences on water issues. Residents have also launched a number of legal challenges and interventions against the provincial and federal governments for a lack of consultation and for infringing on treaty rights.

“Water is life. All life depends on it,” says Francois Paulette, former Chief of Smith’s Landing First Nation, who lives on the Slave River by the Alberta / Northwest Territories border. “You destroy it, you end all life!”

Click here for the full report in pdf…

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