Opinion: Alberta’s new tailings committee a repeat of six others; yet no reports

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If Alberta needed another committee to deliberate oilsands cleanup, surely one of the many environmental organizations or Indigenous communities in the province would have called for one. But in May, despite zero demand, the Alberta government announced a new tailings committee, and it is redundant, at best.

The new committee seems to duplicate work that’s already been done by previous groups, except this time with significantly less Indigenous participation, while the results of previous work have been withheld from the public.

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The Oil Sands Mine Water Steering Committee, announced May 7, intends to “speed up the reclamation of oilsands tailings ponds,” which now cover more than 300 square kilometres of northern Alberta and contain roughly 1.7 trillion litres of toxic industrial wastewater with harmful levels of benzene, mercury and naphthenic acids.

According to the province’s news release, this committee will put together options for quick and safe reclamation, and that the committee’s work will be used to “create an accelerated plan to reclaim the water in oilsands tailing ponds and eventually return the land for use by future generations.”

It may seem that Alberta is prioritizing tailings cleanup by creating this committee, but it’s just the latest iteration of numerous groups that have been established and dismantled over the years, with little to show for their efforts. A new committee creates the appearance of concern, but it effectively stalls action on work that’s been completed to date.

This is a problem that has been left unaddressed since the 1960s, while tailings production has continued uninterrupted despite the increasing risk of environmental catastrophe, as we saw with the nine-month leak and eventual spill of tailings at Imperial’s Kearl mine. When it comes to tailings cleanup in Alberta, it’s death by a thousand committees.

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Since 2015, at least seven different committees have been created to advise the government on tailings management. The Integrated Water Management Working Group was created in late 2015, alongside a stakeholder interest group. In 2019, Alberta replaced them with the Oil Sands Reclamation Interest Group.

Then, in January 2018, Alberta established the Oil Sands Process Water Science Team, but that was replaced in August 2020 by the Oil Sands Mine Water Science Team. The science team was supposed to report on six information gaps to help inform provincial regulatory requirements for the release of tailings by 2023.

According to a January 2022 document, these reports should have been published by May 2022, but they don’t seem to be publicly available anywhere — more than two years past the deadline.

Alberta’s new committee seems to investigate similar questions as the science team worked on over the past three-plus years, while sweeping previous findings under the rug. At the same time, this new committee excludes many Indigenous communities that may be affected by recommendations.

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The federal government facilitates a parallel process known as the Crown-Indigenous Working Group (CWIG), which formed in response to Indigenous concerns over the potential release of treated tailings into the Athabasca River. CWIG includes representation from nine Indigenous communities within and downstream of the oilsands area, whereas Alberta’s new committee only features a single Indigenous representative, a former chief of Fort McKay First Nation.

This begs the following questions: Why is there only one Indigenous representative on the new steering committee? Have any other Indigenous communities been approached to sit on the committee and, if so, why did they decline? And, has the Metis Nation of Alberta endorsed a former First Nations’ chief to represent their interests? You would assume that all nine communities from CWIG should be represented in any process that’s investigating the exact same issue provincially.

One thing we know for sure is that we don’t need another committee, especially one that seems to cherry-pick some Indigenous representation over others. All potentially affected Indigenous communities need to have a meaningful say in how the issue of tailings is dealt with.

And the government of Alberta needs to release its previous findings before any new committees get underway.

Phillip Meintzer is a conservation specialist with Alberta Wilderness Association.

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