Guilbeault says releasing treated tailings may not be only way

Federal environment minister Steven Guilbeault at the 2022 United Nations Biodiversity Conference
Federal environment minister Steven Guilbeault at the 2022 United Nations Biodiversity Conference. UN Biodiversity/Flickr

More information is expected soon about the plans of a working group tasked with figuring out what to do about oil sands tailings ponds.

For the past few years, Ottawa has been working with Indigenous communities to find long-term tailings pond solutions, federal environment minister Steven Guilbeault said this week.

“The idea that we can keep accumulating toxic water in these open tailing ponds is unsustainable,” Guilbeault told Cabin Radio. “We need to find a solution.”

As of 2021, Alberta’s oil sands had created 1.35 billion cubic metres of tailings – roughly equivalent to 540,000 Olympic-sized swimming pools. The ponds contain a mixture of sand, clay and contaminants like naphthenic acids (compounds partly responsible for crude oil’s acidity) and metals.



One option is treating that tailings, then releasing it into the river system.

A Crown-Indigenous working group has been developing regulations to allow for the release of treated tailings water, with a plan to finalize those regulations by 2025. However, the idea of releasing treated tailings has been greeted with skepticism – and sometimes outright opposition – by communities along the Athabasca River, not to mention the NWT government.

Recently, that opposition has reignited following a leak and spill reported at Imperial Oil’s Kearl oil sands mine earlier this year.

In an interview with Cabin Radio on Monday, Guilbeault said treating tailings and releasing the water back into the Athabasca River is only one solution being explored. He said there may be other options.



According to Guilbeault, the working group will review literature and explore available technologies that could provide alternatives.

Guilbeault said the group is at the beginning of its work, so what those alternatives might be is still unclear.

He said an announcement in the coming weeks will provide more information about the working group’s tasks and its timeline.

Although Guilbeault said he would like a solution to be found as quickly as possible, he also said people in the group need to feel they are not being pressured.

“Their timeline will be my timeline,” he said.

Second working group studies spill reporting

Last week, NWT environment minister Shane Thompson said both Guilbeault and his Alberta counterpart, Sonya Savage, had “made commitments to address our government’s concerns and have agreed to improving lines of communication going forward.”

Thompson had been galled by a lack of notification about events both at Kearl and at the nearby Fort Hills mine.

Guilbeault said he shared the concerns of communities and the territorial government.



“The system we have right now – both in terms of monitoring and in terms of transparency of information, in terms of communication – that system doesn’t work,” he said.

Guilbeault said a second, new working group announced last month would work to improve monitoring and communication on tailings pond issues. That working group will feature representatives from the governments of Alberta and the NWT, as well as the federal government and Indigenous nations in both Alberta and the territory.

According to Guilbeault, Alberta has never agreed to such a working group before.

“It’s a first,” he said, adding that the group will launch in the coming weeks.