The North American Commission for Environmental Cooperation (CEC) has found enough evidence to warrant an investigation into the Harper government’s failure to enforce the federal Fisheries Act, with respect to continuous leaking from Alberta’s toxic oil sands tailings ponds.
Since 2010, the U.S.-based Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), Canada-based Environmental Defence, as well as three private Canadian citizens, have argued that the Canadian government did not take measures against the toxic oils sands tailings.
The environmental groups’ case is based on data from corporate proposals obtained in 2008 by Pembina Corporate Consulting. The data shows that approximately 11 million litres of toxic liquid tailings waste from tar sands operations leak into surrounding ecosystems every day, or upwards of four billion litres per year. The groups claim these numbers will only increase as oil sands development expands, and that some 95 per cent of the water used in the operations is “too toxic to be returned to the watershed and is eventually stored in the giant, leaking, tailings lakes.”
Specifically, the groups’ toxic liquid tailings allegations relate to subsection 36(3) of the federal Fisheries Act, which prohibits waste from being deposited in habitats frequented by fish.
Instead of responding to the allegations, Environment Canada tried to block the commission by pointing to a legal action filed by a private citizen in Fort McMurray, Alta., that levelled similar criticisms. The commission is not allowed to investigate any matter that’s before the courts.
That legal action was heard in February. The person who filed it confirmed to The Canadian Press he considers the matter dead. Nevertheless, Environment Canada argues because the appeal period isn’t over, the commission’s staff is still operating outside of its authority.
While the CEC does have enforcement powers for environmental pollution, the reach of those powers has rarely been tested on such a large scale as the allegations surrounding the oil sands’ leakage. The Commission cannot penalize Canada in any direct way as much as it can publish factual findings to the international community, findings that would undoubtedly counter Canada’s stance that its oil sands operations are environmentally sustainable.
The Commission for Environmental Cooperation (CEC) is an environmental watchdog set up as part of the North American Free Trade Agreement.