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N.W.T. leaders ask feds to reinstate Alberta oilsands environmental monitoring

Environmentalists and Indigenous leaders from the southern N.W.T. are asking the federal government to intervene in a controversial set of environmental monitoring suspensions by the Alberta government. 

The Alberta Energy Regulator suspended some regulations due to COVID-19

Leaders from the N.W.T argue that the Alberta Energy Regulator's decision to suspend some of their environmental monitoring regulations during the pandemic could threaten Wood Buffalo National Park. (Lennard Plantz/CBC)

Environmentalists and Indigenous leaders from the southern N.W.T. are asking the federal government to intervene in a controversial set of environmental monitoring suspensions by the Alberta government. 

In a letter addressed to Jonathan Wilkinson, Canada's environment and climate change minister, signatories from the Northwest Territories allege that the decision of the Alberta Energy Regulator to suspend some environmental monitoring of oilsands projects in northern Alberta were made "unilaterally" and will have severe impacts to wildlife and the water systems in Wood Buffalo National Park on the N.W.T. and Alberta border. 

"The federal government should make it clear that environmental monitoring is an essential activity for a safe and responsible energy sector by urging the government of Alberta to immediately reinstate the monitoring requirements," the letter reads. 

Gerry Cheezie, chief of Smith's Landing First Nation, Garry Bailey, president of the Northwest Territories Métis Nation and Fort Resolution mayor Patrick Simon are among those from the territory who added their names to the letter. 

The Alberta Energy Regulator decided to postpone an array of environmental monitoring requirements earlier this month after hearing from the energy industry that they would not be able to meet COVID-19 orders and guidelines. 

The letter comes just two days after three northern Alberta First Nations filed a formal appeal of the Alberta Energy Regulator's decision. 

The Alberta Energy Regulator noted in a public statement dated June 9 that technical experts went through a formal review process to decide which monitoring activities had the lowest environmental impact and could be postponed during the pandemic with the least amount of harm. 

Overall, the regulator said it postponed between two to five per cent of their total regulations, including some groundwater sampling and remote wildlife monitoring. 

'Disappointed' to see monitoring scaled back

Wood Buffalo National Park is Canada's largest national park at more than 44,000 square kilometres. Its boundaries stretch across the N.W.T. and Alberta border. 

"[The decision] essentially allows pollution and water contamination to go ahead un-checked." - Zoe Guile, conservation coordinator for CPAWS Northwest Territories 

It's home to North America's largest population of wild bison and is the natural nesting place of the endangered whooping crane. The park has long been recognized by UNESCO as a natural site of "outstanding universal value." 

The Slave River, which runs through the national park and downstream into Great Slave Lake, is also affected by any change in water quality from oilsands projects.

Zoe Guile is the conservation coordinator for CPAWS Northwest Territories. She says that environmental monitoring keeps oil and gas projects in check. (Kate Kyle/CBC)

Zoe Guile, conservation co-ordinator with CPAWS Northwest Territories, said all of these elements in the park are at risk if the Alberta government does not reinstate all of its monitoring efforts on oil and gas projects. 

"We were disappointed to see the monitoring scaled back," Guile told CBC.  "[The decision] essentially allows pollution and water contamination to go ahead unchecked." 

The monitoring done by the Alberta government in the national park is "imperative" to help researchers identify potential environmental hazards in the water systems and figure out their mitigation strategies, the letter to minister Wilkinson continues. 

National park includes traditional territory of 11 Indigenous groups

Eleven Indigenous groups in Alberta and the N.W.T work with Parks Canada to monitor the national park. 

Smith's Landing First Nation, a community with traditional territory on both sides of the N.W.T and Alberta border, is one of them. 

"It doesn't seem to me that [consultation] could be that hard." - Becky Kostka, land resources manager for Smiths Landing First Nation

Becky Kostka, the nation's land resources manager, said  it is about time the nation be consulted on issues in the park that affect them. 

"It doesn't seem to me that [consultation] could be that hard," Kostka said. "There's always phone or email or Zoom ... so I don't know why consultation is lacking in some of these cases." 

This isn't the first time Smith's Landing First Nation said they were not consulted on an oil and gas decision from the Alberta government. 

Gerry Cheezie, chief of Smith's Landing First Nation, is one of the signatories of the letter to minister Jonathan Wilkinson. Earlier this year, the chief spoke out against the Teck Frontier mine project because of the adverse effects it would have on the water quality in the Slave River. (CBC)

In February, Chief Cheezie actively petitioned against the Teck Frontier project that was proposed on a site just north of Fort McMurray, Alta., because of the negative effects the project posed to the Slave River that runs through the nation's traditional territory. 

Water quality remains the top issue for Smith's Landing, Kostka said. 

Alberta regulator sets back international protection goals 

In 2017, the UNESCO World Heritage Committee asked the federal government to develop an action plan for the national park because it found that oil sands development and climate change were a threat to the park. 

Parks Canada came back with a 142-point plan to protect Wood Buffalo National Park that included a commitment to enhance research and monitoring in the Peace-Athabasca Delta.

Kostka said the Alberta Energy Regulator's decision to suspend these regulations, on top of the coronavirus pandemic, sets their progress back. 

"It just makes our job that much harder, and almost ineffective in a way," Kostka said. "It is really hard for us to do work in Wood Buffalo National Park without Alberta on our side." 

UNESCO has given Canada until the end of the year to show that they have made improvements to protect the park. 

CBC has reached out to the federal Department of Environment and Climate Change for a statement but did not immediately hear back.  

The public statement from the Alberta Energy Regulator said it will be will be reassessing its temporary suspensions once Alberta enters phase two of their reopening plan on June 12.

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