Do we know enough to release Alberta’s treated tailings?

Last modified: February 1, 2022 at 10:40am

A federal plan to release treated tailings overlooks large gaps in our understanding of how that could affect human health, some experts and advocates say.

Denesuline Elder Francois Paulette, a member of the Smith’s Landing First Nation, believes “people should be very, very concerned” about the planned release of Alberta oilsands tailings water.

Federal proposals would allow treated water used in the mining process to be discharged – a plan that has already prompted concern and skepticism from Indigenous communities downstream of the oilsands. 


“I have reenergized myself to campaign in opposition to this,” said Paulette, a longtime treaty and Indigenous rights advocate.

Paulette said he sees opportunities for Treaty First Nations to mount legal opposition to the planned release of treated tailings. 

“Before we get there, I think all the people should get together and begin to really do some serious awareness, communication that Canada can’t do this,” Paulette continued.

“They cannot do this.”

The tailings are leftovers from the process that separates oil from sand and clay. More than 1.4 trillion litres of tailings in the region are kept in ponds that cover a combined area of 220 square kilometres. 


‘There is no data’

A decade after launching an oilsands environmental monitoring program, responses to a survey conducted by Alberta Environment and Parks raised concerns about the program’s effectiveness, according to a Canadian Press report

Dr Courtney Howard, a Yellowknife emergency room physician who specializes in advocacy regarding the relationship between climate and health, said such concern about the monitoring program’s shortcomings echoes “the same message that has been given repeatedly by all sorts of reviews.”

When the survey responses were published, Dr Howard drew a connection on Twitter between an “inadequate monitoring system” and the proposal to release tailings into “a river system that extends up to the Arctic.”

Howard said the effects of tailings byproducts on health have been “understudied.”

“The Alberta Cancer Board did file a report that showed that there was an abnormally high number of rare cancers, including bile duct cancers in Fort Chipewyan and Fort McKay, downstream from the oilsands,” said Howard.

But the report, Howard added, concluded that “because the population was so small, it was difficult to draw conclusions based on that small number.”

Dr Tim Takaro, a physician, scientist and professor in the Department of Health Sciences at Simon Fraser University, said studying small populations, such as the communities living downstream from the Alberta oilsands, is difficult. 

“There are few people, there are few outcomes then,” Dr Takaro said. “It’s really difficult to understand the impacts, so you have to extrapolate from occupational studies.”

Takaro specializes in environmental health research and has co-authored reports on the effects to human health of exposure to toxic chemicals in crude oil and diluted bitumen. He said he has seen the effects of “acute intoxication” in his clinical work and “the long-term consequences are really the main ones that are poorly studied.”

“The oil and gas company will say, ‘Oh, well, that’s not really what we’re talking about here. We’re talking about very low exposures,’ and ‘No, there is no effect.’ But they have no data, because there is no data.”

Takaro said the heart of the issue lies in understanding the sources of exposure to toxic substances, where they’re located – such as in the air, food, or water – and who is susceptible.

“From my understanding … it’s the impact on a food system, and a way of life, that is the most devastating,” he said.  

“Simply wondering if the fish that you’re eating is safe is a needless source of anxiety. It’s preventable anxiety. And measuring that is also very challenging.”

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 the province plans changes to the way its water is governed, the agreement does not involve the federal government.

In a December statement, the Smith’s Landing First Nation said it was “working to determine whether there was any situation in which a release could be acceptable for our membership.”

The NWT’s environment minister, Shane Thompson, has previously said the territory opposes the reported federal plan and staff were in “dialogues back and forth” with federal and Alberta counterparts.

The CBC reported that 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 Alberta Energy Regulator 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.

‘I live by the river’

Howard believes future studies must be larger, more comprehensive, and include “other ways of doing things.”  

“For over 10 years, downstream communities have been calling for a proper quantitative and qualitative study that includes traditional knowledge in order to help fill these gaps in methodology that we see in some of these other reports,” she said. 

“Traditional knowledge can really help to work side-by-side with Western scientific knowledge in order to come up with a rounded, holistic picture of the risk. But despite the fact that we’re a high-income country with excellent biomedical research capacities, we simply haven’t started those studies.”

Howard said tailings data regarding the Athabasca is being gathered in an environment that is already contaminated. 

“You would be taking a situation where we already don’t know the true impact of the contaminants that have already been released – it hasn’t been well-measured – and then releasing additional contaminants into that situation,” she said. 

“Canada needs to realize that this is one of the world’s most pristine water systems, and there’s the potential here for it to be disrupted beyond the point at which we could remedy it.”

A first draft of the federal government’s protocols for the release of treated tailings water into the Athabasca River is scheduled to be finished by 2024 and a final draft is expected in 2025.

“It’s just another battle that I’ve got to do,” said Paulette. 

“It’s protecting the future of my grandchildren, the river system, the water that the Creator built for us – and that’s a way of life, that’s what I know.

“I’m not in some office in front of a computer telling you this. I’m at home, in the bush. I live by the river.”

Paulette said he hopes that more people “get on board” moving forward. 

“People down the river system that have a concern in protecting their waters and their rivers – leaders, chiefs – I hope that they begin to realize that we are once again being told to protect our rivers and waters.”