Some Northern residents vow to oppose federal regulations to release treated oilsands tailings water

As the N.W.T.'s environment minister prepares to respond diplomatically to the potential for discharging treated oilsands tailings water into the environment, Smith's Landing First Nation Chief Gerry Cheezie said officials should expect opposition from communities downstream from the oilfields.

'We're not going to sit back and allow this to happen,' says Smith's Landing First Nation chief

Oil goes into a tailings pond at the Suncor tar sands operations near Fort McMurray, Alta., in September 2014. The federal government is now working toward setting standards for releasing treated tailings water back into the environment. (Todd Korol/Reuters)

Northerners say the federal government's plan to regulate the release of treated oilsands tailings water will be met with opposition by communities downstream. 

As the N.W.T. Environment minister gears up for a diplomatic approach with Alberta and Canada, Dene leaders like Smith's Landing First Nation Chief Gerry Cheezie are prepared to take legal action with Dene Nation, and to bring their opposition to the release of tailings water all the way to Ottawa.

"It's unthinkable. It's a human rights issue … along with being environmental racism," said Cheezie, who argues that releasing water from tailings, the byproduct of the extraction process used to remove the oil from the sand and clay, violates treaty rights to access lands and waters. 

"I can't believe the Government of Canada is willing to release this toxic sludge on our river and on our people," he said. "We're not going to sit back and allow this to happen."

Gerry Cheezie, chief of Smith Landing First Nation, argues the government's plan to release tailings violates treaty rights to access lands and waters. He called it a human rights issue and said it amounted to 'environmental racism.' (CBC)

A working group for Crown-Indigenous Relations and Northern Affairs Canada has been developing standards for releasing treated tailings water since the beginning of 2021. The draft regulations under the Fisheries Act are slated for 2024, with final regulations by 2025.

Researchers are working to develop methods that affordably treat tailings without raising emissions in the process. 

CBC reached out to the Ministry of Environment and Climate Change Canada, but the ministry did not provide a statement by publication time.

The release of oilsands tailings water to surface water is currently prohibited. Some experts argue that discharging treated water would be safer than allowing the tailings to accumulate, where they could accidentally be released in the event of a flood or other natural disaster.

WATCH | One way of treating oilsands waste water is using a carbon filter like your Brita:

One technique to clean up oilsands mine waste water is similar to using a Brita water filter, says expert

7 months ago
Duration 4:53
John Brogly is the water director for Canada's Oil Sands Innovation Alliance (COSIA). In 2020, there were 57 active research projects through COSIA at a cost of $150 million and an additional 86 projects focused on water.

The ponds where the tailings are stored contain an estimated 1.4 trillion litres of tailings that have been deposited in the boreal forest since bitumen mining began in the 1960s. 

That's enough to fill 560,000 Olympic swimming pools. If those pools were lined up end to end, they would extend 28,000 kilometres, roughly the distance from Yellowknife to the tip of Argentina — and back. 

Cheezie said next year, Dene Nation will meet and mount an education campaign about the impact tailings water release would have on the North. 

"We're totally opposed to treatment and release of tailings ponds into the Athabasca because eventually it will flow into the Great Slave and eventually end up in the Mackenzie River and ultimately end up in the Arctic Ocean. Most of our communities are along this river system."

Cheezie said the N.W.T. government should "take a stand" and not "hide" behind the transboundary water agreement with Alberta, which requires the province to inform the N.W.T. about changes that will affect the territory's waters.

He said that agreement has "no teeth" and is not protecting the North from pollutants. 

Legal action a last resort: N.W.T. environment minister

N.W.T. Environment Minister Shane Thompson said the territory's deputy minister is emailing back and forth with Alberta's deputy minister, a line of communication that is open because of the transboundary water agreement. 

According to a guidebook, the agreement, signed in 2015, is based on a commitment to maintain the shared waters and ecosystems of the Mackenzie River Basin and requires governments to notify each other of any development or activity, such as regulatory changes, that could affect shared water management. 

"I have to believe in the system that we're going to have communications with the federal minister, the Alberta minister to work it out," Thompson said, noting that N.W.T. officials will meet with Alberta's office of the chief scientist in January.

He said sharing scientific information with Indigenous governments will form part of the territory's response. When the N.W.T. meets with its climate change council and Indigenous leadership, they will add water management to the agenda.

While he personally opposes the release of treated tailings water, the minister said he'll prioritize the science and put his faith in the transboundary water agreement. 

N.W.T. Environment Minister Shane Thompson said that while he personally opposes the release of treated tailings, he'll prioritize the science and put his faith in conversations resulting from transboundary water agreement between Alberta and the territory. (Mario De Ciccio/Radio-Canada)

Thompson said considering legal action at this point is "too negative" and would be a last resort. He said Alberta honoured the agreement in 2020 during the Fort McMurray floods when the province warned the N.W.T. in a timely manner. 

"They didn't wait a week. They didn't wait a month. It was within hours of water going over the top … they were already reaching out to us."

He said that notification shows the benefits of the agreement, which is "unheard of in other jurisdictions."

According to Thompson, N.W.T. government officials want to meet with federal Environment Minister Steven Guilbeault and Alberta's environment minister in 2022. 

N.W.T. Premier Caroline Cochrane is headed to Ottawa this week. Cheezie said his hope is that she brings up this issue with the prime minister, "because it's going to destroy our people and our river."

A spokesperson for the premier wrote in an emailed that there is "no plan" to do so.

"We have heard the concerns of Indigenous governments, Indigenous organizations, and residents across the N.W.T., and we share these concerns" and the territory is waiting to receive more information before making a decision, the statement reads. 

'We're the toilet bowl of Fort Mac'

At the edge of oilsands development, Alice Rigney, a Dene elder in Fort Chipewyan, has toured Suncor's reclamation lakes, including a pond along the Athabasca River. 

While the ponds may "look appealing," she remains sceptical of those who say the tailings water can be released safely, because she says communities downstream already face health impacts.

Alice Rigney, an elder from Athabasca Chipewyan Nation, said the news that regulations are being developed to release treated tailings comes as no surprise, and that the land and water has already been radically changed by the effects of development upstream. (David Thurton/CBC News)

"The feds and the province say that it's OK, but we live downstream … all the people along the Mackenzie right to the Arctic Ocean. We're the toilet bowl of Fort Mac and if they lived here, I'm sure they would see it differently," she said. 

"We have our experts — the land users, the people who are affected at this end and all the way up to the Mackenzie."

Rigney says water levels have dropped, the whitefish are gone, the commercial fishery is closed and there are no muskrats or berries to be found.

"Jackfish Lake used to be our pantry — we could fish and hunt, pick berries, my mom and dad used to move out there and there were thousands of fish for dry fish," a traditional method of preserving fish to eat later. 

Rigney said even drinking water from the Athabasca River and inland streams is no longer acceptable and some lakes are drained.

She said the work to regulate the release of tailings water is "obviously made by people who can look at it from a distance in their Calgary office" and that no government should support industry's request to release treated tailings water. 

"As Dene Indigenous people we are Earth watchers. I wanna leave this world knowing I did what I could for my grandson, for those yet to come. To protect the land and only take what you need," Rigney said.

"I'm not gonna move. I defend my home."