Enforce environmental laws at oilsands: report

The federal government is not protecting rivers and groundwater near the northern Alberta oilsands, affecting people living as far upstream as Yellowknife, according to a new report.

The federal government is not protecting rivers and groundwater near the northern Alberta oilsands, affecting people living as far upstream as Yellowknife, according to a report co-released Monday by seven environmental groups.

The report, titled Watered Down: Overcoming Federal Inaction on the Impact of Oil Sands Development to Water Resources, urges the federal government to enforce existing environmental laws and regulations in the oilsands, as well as to set new pollution standards for development there.

Groups involved in the report are worried about the impact of tailings, a waste product from mining, on groundwater and the Athabasca River, which ultimately flows into the Mackenzie River and the Arctic Ocean.

"Toxic tailings are occupying about 130 square kilometres, and those tailings lakes contain about 720 million cubic metres of waste," Jennifer Grant of the Pembina Institute said Monday as the report was released.

"So there's concerns around seepage of that toxic waste and how that might impact groundwater."

Other critics have raised concerns that should a tailings holding pond break open, the spilled waste could pollute the entire Mackenzie River Basin, much of which is located in the Northwest Territories.

According to the report, mining at the oilsands can divert 445 million cubic metres of freshwater annually from the Athabasca River, while about 200 million litres of contaminated water comes out of the oilsands daily.

The report's authors say the federal government is failing to enforce a variety of laws protecting land, forests, water, fish, birds and wildlife.

As well, too little attention is being paid to the impacts of oilsands development on human health, according to the authors.

"This Conservative government is protecting the tarsands in every way it can," said Western Arctic MP Dennis Bevington, a New Democrat.

"It's been missing in action when it comes to enforcing the regulations that are available now to them."

First Nations communities along the affected rivers have long complained about the environmental impacts of oilsands development.

Federal officials are reviewing the report and were not available for comment Monday.

The report was released jointly by seven groups: the Alberta Wilderness Association, Environmental Defence, Keepers of the Athabasca, the Pembina Institute, the Polaris Institute, the Sierra Club of Canada and Water Matters.

It consists of testimony highlights from the House of Commons's standing committee on environment and sustainable development.