Independent Alberta tailings monitoring data available soon


“They’re not monitoring where they need to be monitoring, how often they need to be monitoring, and what they need to be monitoring.”

Keepers of the Water, an Indigenous-led non-profit based in Slave Lake, Alberta, recently launched an independent monitoring project involving the province’s oil sands.

The goal is to better understand the impact of industry – and especially the Alberta tar sands tailings ponds – on waterways that reach up the Athabasca River and into the NWT.

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Having received funding for the project this year, the organization performed its first monitoring session along the Athabasca River from Jasper to Fort Mackay in June. Data should be available on its website in the near future.

“We’re looking for what we call comprehensive impacts, or every type of potential impact,” said Paul Belanger, Keepers of the Water’s science advisor.

“What we find often with government monitoring is that they just measure certain things and leave out other parameters … What we’re attempting to do is a comprehensive, total scientific analysis of the watershed.”

Belanger said more data will be collected in September and then the research parameters will be expanded in the hope of growing the monitoring project each year. If continued funding is found, he said, data collection could begin in the NWT as early as this winter.

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In a presentation on Thursday at Yellowknife’s Northern United Place, Keepers of the Water said it hoped to eventually create an interactive map where visitors can click on research sites and view data.

‘Layman’s terms’

A main pillar of the project is to combine independent monitoring data from citizens and Indigenous groups and make that data readily available “in layman’s terms” on Keepers of the Water’s website.

Rather than duplicate what’s happening already, Belanger said, combining knowledge will help the project’s efficiency and identify areas with inadequate monitoring or inaccessible government and industry data.

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“The monitoring that we’re doing – it was out of a desperate need that there needs to be independent monitoring,” said Jesse Cardinal, the group’s executive director.

The interests of governments and industry “lie in the economy and in fossil fuel extraction,” Cardinal said, so their monitoring data is, in her view, “always going to be questionable and it’s always going to be in favour to continue extracting.”

“They may have all kinds of data,” said Cardinal, “but they can choose what they show the public and the data can be manipulated to tell a narrative.

“Our data is all going to be transparent … The one thing we will be doing is simplifying the language, so that people can see what we’re monitoring.”

By making simpler data available, Keepers of the Water hopes to increase the likelihood of a call for change – especially as conversations continue about the release of tailings pond water into the Athabasca River.

From February: Do we know enough to release Alberta’s tailings?

In cooperation with other Indigenous groups, the monitoring program will assess both environmental impacts and effects on traditional practices in areas surrounding the tar sands and farther downstream.

“It’s not only just data,” said Cardinal.

“It’s about the Indigenous worldview of water, and that’s where our monitoring program is headed.

“It’s having that view of both the Western science and the Indigenous science … So, our monitoring program is not just a data collection program. It’s so much more than that.”