The leaders of Indigenous communities downstream from oilsands developments say many of their questions about releasing treated tailings water into the Athabasca River have gone unanswered by the federal government and industry groups.
The federal government is developing protocols for when treated tailings water can be released into the Athabasca River. A first draft is scheduled to be finished by 2024 and a final draft will be published in 2025.
But the leaders of First Nation and Métis communities in Fort McKay and Fort Chipewyan, which are along the Athabasca River, say consultation has been limited. Many questions are about what this monitoring and treatment process will look like and any community impacts.
"In order for us to accept any of this we have to see what they’re doing. We have to be working together at it. We want to be part of it. We already raised our concerns,” said Chief Peter Powder of the Mikisew Cree First Nation (MCFN) near Fort Chipewyan.
“We have to be 100 per cent sure that it’s not going to be toxic. The decisions we make today is going to affect our future generations,” he said. “When the mines close and industry leaves, our kids and their kids will live in the consequences of the decisions made today.”
Tailings are leftovers from the process separating oil from sand and clay. More than 1.4 trillion litres of tailings are kept in ponds that cover a combined area of 220 square-kilometres. The Alberta Energy Regulator (AER) requires oil companies to have a tailings management plan. Companies must explain how they will restore the land within 10 years of the mine closing.
A spokesperson with Environment and Climate Change Canada said in an email that any decisions on releasing treated tailings will be based on "the best available science and Indigenous knowledge." Industry groups like the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers (CAPP) insist any treated tailings water released into the Athabasca River "will meet release criteria set to protect the environment and human health."
“Integrated water management across the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo is key for oilsands water management and we are taking a collaborative approach to this work," said Suncor spokesperson Leithan Slade. "We believe water release is part of managing water responsibly and is critical to achieving successful operations and progressive reclamation and closure."
But First Nation and Métis leaders are skeptical about how this process is unfolding. Ron Quintal, president of Fort McKay Métis Nation, said impacted Indigenous communities must have a leadership role in developing and implementing any policies after thorough consultation.
"The Indigenous people of this region are the land-users, and you look at destruction of land and release of water back into the environment it’s obviously something of great concern to us," he said. "The federal government, while they’re pushing this initiative forward, need to take a very long look at this in terms of not just Indigenous consultation, but Indigenous buy-in."
Chief Allan Adam of the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation (ACFN) is concerned about the timeline proposed by the federal government.
“That is just three years away and we haven’t even determined what we are up against,” said Adam. “They need the support of the First Nations to move this forward and right now the First Nations don’t feel comfortable.”
Fort McKay First Nation has been meeting with the Crown Indigenous Working Group—an arm of the federal government that works directly with First Nations, Metis and Inuit communities.
“We strongly support the cleaning of tailings ponds, but we don’t want the clean-up of tailings ponds to mean that we are creating environmental impacts in the Athabasca River and downstream," said Bori Arrobo, director of sustainability with the Fort McKay First Nation. "We don’t want to swap one environmental liability with another one."