The NWT’s environment minister says the territory opposes a reported federal plan to allow the release of treated oilsands tailings water back into the environment.
The proposal, first reported by the CBC, would allow treated water used in the mining process to be discharged. Some experts argue that’s safer than storing the water in massive tailings ponds.
However, the Northwest Territories lies downstream of many oilsands facilities and communities have long expressed concern about the impact of industry on their water.
Chief Gerry Cheezie of the Smith’s Landing First Nation last year said he opposed “the environmental pollution that’s coming out of the oilsands projects and the lack of federal and provincial response,” even before the news that the release of treated tailings water would be allowed.
The CBC reported the regulations being developed by the federal government, which have not been seen by Cabin Radio, would demand that released water meet a certain standard but need not necessarily be clean enough to drink.
The Fort McKay First Nation, around which 20 tailings ponds lie, told the broadcaster it did not want to “swap one environmental liability, which is the tailings ponds at the moment, for another, which could be the deterioration of the quality of the water in the Athabasca River and the downstream.”
In the NWT legislature on Tuesday, environment minister Shane Thompson said his staff were in “dialogues back and forth” with federal and Alberta counterparts.
“We’re not supportive of this presently or even in the future,” Thompson said, pressed by Frame Lake MLA Kevin O’Reilly for a territorial government response to the reported federal plan.
“We need to reach out to the federal minister and to the Alberta minister to get information.
“This has been a very long issue for our Indigenous governments across the territories, all the way up from the Beau Del all the way down to Fort Smith. We’ve heard them. We’ve heard the concerns. We are working with them within the system we have presently.”
The NWT and Alberta have a transboundary water agreement designed to govern what happens to the water that eventually flows downstream into the territory.
At the time of signing that agreement in 2015, the NWT government said it would “provide certainty” and “better ensure waters flowing into the NWT will remain substantially unaltered in quality.”
However, while the document commits Alberta to notifying the NWT when it plans changes to the way its water is governed, the agreement does not involve the federal government.
Even so, O’Reilly said the scale of the proposed change would have an impact on the Alberta agreement.
“These tailings ponds are huge,” he told Thompson. “They’ve been storing water for years. It looks like there’s a desire now to start to release this in light of some of the flooding that’s been happening and climate change and so on.”
Thompson said he could not immediately comment on the likely impact to that agreement.