Eyewitness Report: Tar sands tailings are poisoning muskeg and First Nations community

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“Here we were, standing on traplines and hunting trails that remain in use by members of the Fort McKay First Nation, as the toxic waste covered many hectares with an oily ooze.”

by Ben Powless

From Rabble.ca, November 26, 2010.
Thanks to Ben Powless for permission to repost.
Photos by Ben Powless

The trip out to the tar sands tailings pond reminded me of other recent trips to places where indigenous people were trying to survive.

It recalled for me a trip out to the Russian Arctic earlier this year to visit a group of Saami (Indigenous) reindeer herders struggling to maintain their way of life, and also the work I did last year with a group of Amazonian peoples who were trying to stop oil companies and oil spills in the Peruvian jungles.

But in the end this was far worse, even compared with those two dire situations, and it was being promoted by the Canadian and Alberta governments.

We left on a pair of four wheelers in the afternoon, embracing the freezing temperatures and snow for about six hours to gather footage of what I was promised would be a shocking find. And it was — when we finally arrived on the site of the Canadian Natural Resources Ltd. — CNRL — tailings pond (which, at about five-km long and one-km wide, was more of a lake), we saw tailings being released on the opposite shore, flowing out and covering the muskeg and bush underneath. I was accompanied by Mike Orr, a councillor in the community of Fort McKay and avid hunter and trapper, and his daughter.

Here we were, standing on traplines and hunting trails that remain in use by members of the Fort McKay First Nation, as the toxic waste covered many hectares with an oily ooze. At first, it wasn’t even obvious this lake was a man-made creation, for how large it was. I had assumed the company was pouring tailings into a natural water body. But it became apparent, seeing trees emerge from the middle of the lake, that this toxic water was fresh.

It wasn’t immediately clear how this could be allowed to happen. Most tailings ponds are surrounded by a dam of some sort on four sides, with some sort of impermeable membrane underneath, entrapping the toxic waste. Here, the tailings were dammed on only three sides, and allowed to flow over the land on the fourth. I could see birds flying freely overhead, spotted beaver dams just off the shore, and we found moose and deer tracks leading right up to the toxic sludge, where animals had at least drank the waste, if not tried to swim. And the waste was slowly swallowing up living trees and other vegetation.

Animal tracks lead in photo by Ben Powless[Left]Animal tracks lead in — and sometimes not out —
of the toxic soup.

It was like a massive oil spill, in slow motion, continuous. We captured some photos, took down GPS locations of creeks and streams flowing into the lake, and headed out. On our way out, we noticed that one of the drainage ditches that was meant to divert streams away from the tailings and into the plainly named Compensation Lake, was instead diverted itself and poured into another body of water that seemed to flow back into the tailings pond. More GPS co-ordinates, as all daylight faded, and we headed back to Fort McKay in the cool moonlight.

The story ran the next day on CBC. On the radio, online, and on the television news. They had been working with the Orr family to set it up, and their weeks of research and trip out to the bush to capture their own footage had paid off. It set off a political storm all the way in Ottawa, where it was seized upon by politicians eager to dig into the “temporary” Environment Minister, John Baird. In Question Period, instead of his normal pitbull demeanour, he appeared timid, even genuinely concerned. I was incredulous, watching his reaction from the Orr home, as he responded to the allegations that the tailings pond were leaking into the bush by committing to have Environment Canada officials investigate, the next day. Were politicians really ready to listen?

Tailings release photo by Ben Powless

CNRL Tailings releases into the three-sided tailings pond.

That was Monday, November 15th. That same day in Alberta, in the provincial legislature, more questions came up about the specific licensing of the project. The opposition wanted to know how this project could have been approved, if it was allowing tailings to flow openly into the muskeg. Also, water was only flowing into the tailings, and no tailings were leaving the area. To the media, the government responded by saying they were monitoring the site, and that everything had been approved following the province’s guidelines.

The next day however, the story began to shift a bit. Suddenly, the provincial environment minister announced that the plans for the tailings pond had not been included in the Environmental Impact Assessment. That seemed pretty significant. According to Albert Environment Minister Rob Renner, “The engineering of these tailings ponds are detailed as the project progresses and so the geotechnical work and that wouldn’t be available at the conceptual stage.”

Beaver Dam can be seen in tailings water photo by Ben Powless

Beaver Dam can be seen in the tailings water.

Instead, the regulatory body had been satisfied with the theoretical plans that mentioned that some sort of tailings pond would be built, with specific details to come later, which would only be seen by those in Renner’s office. On this basis, they had approved the process, with the only chance for public input on the process leaving out perhaps the most controversial aspect. Also, they said now that no water was flowing into or out of the tailings pond.

And still, they maintained their story. The company went on the defensive as well, saying they were concerned about the poor little animals as well, and had even hired local trappers to get rid of any beaver dams that appeared nearby (despite the fact that we found a number). We had no idea how deep this rabbit hole went at first, but the questions kept adding up.

Photo by Ben Powless

Close up view of tailings water that flows by the shore.

Why had the tailings pond gone forward without any public approval process? What kind of monitoring was being done on local water, plants and animals? Why hadn’t members of the local First Nation been consulted, let alone advised? Why did they not have even the most rudimentary system (like a fence) to keep out animals who were blatantly accessing the tailings?

There was another piece to the puzzle — all those that had visited the muskeg, and not even just around the CNRL tailings pond, had begun to develop rashes anywhere were their skin contacted the waters. As we showed photos and video to community members, others came forward with their own stories about how they recently started getting rashes and itchy sores while out hunting or trapping. It was more and more evident that the tailings were getting into other water sources used by the community, no matter how strongly the companies objected.

Photo by Ben Powless

Mike shows off the sores he developed from going into the muskeg.

According to Mike Orr, there is a path forward from this regulated disaster:

“Fort McKay people are directly affected by industry from all directions more than any other group. The community people who must live with the oil sands for the rest of our lives are in the best position to monitor what is happening in our backyard. There is a need to move forward with greater interaction between government, industry, first nations and the scientific community to develop innovative technologies to better manage the oil sands.”

So far, that hasn’t happened. The Environment Canada regulators came and left, announcing that all was as it should be in the tar fields, echoing what their provincial counterparts had said from the outset. But community members understand that restoring justice and the health of the community must be done, and that they’re in the unique position to lead if given the chance.

Ben Powless is a Mohawk from Six Nations in Ontario, and is currently studying Human Rights Indigenous and Environmental Studies at Carleton University in Ottawa. He has been involved with the Canadian Youth Climate Coalition, the Indigenous Environmental Network, sits on the board of the National Council for the Canadian Environmental Network, and is on the Youth Advisory Group to the Canadian Commission for UNESCO. Powless also blogs for rabble.ca.