Canada, the U.S. and Mexico walk into a bar

Canada, the U.S. and Mexico walk into a bar r1 ... Subscribe to this newsletter narwhal logo BECOME A MEMBER alberta oilsands tailings ponds Canada, the U.S. and Mexico walk into a bar in Fort McMurray and order a trillion litres of beer. Canada is having a hard time sitting straight and keeps spilling its pint. The trio enjoys those beers over the span of a few decades and with Canada’s sloshy ways, next thing you know you’ve got damage all the way down to the basement.

OK, so the bar’s actually the oilsands. The beer? Toxic waste. And the basement? Think Alberta’s underground water systems and aquifers.

This whole scene is painted by a years-long probe backed by the governments of Canada, the U.S. and Mexico, who found “scientifically valid evidence” that tailings ponds — which hold 1.25 trillion litres of toxic waste near Alberta’s Athabasca River — are leaking. The fluids are seeping into groundwater and may even contaminate aquifers, the commission found.

For Melody Lepine, the director of government and industry relations for the Mikisew Cree First Nation, the report affirmed what her community “has been saying for quite a long time” and raises even more questions.

Tailings waste is “making its way to the groundwater, so is it making its way to our surface water?” Lepine said in an interview with our Alberta reporter, Sharon J. Riley. “Is it making its way to the foods and wildlife that we rely on for subsistence purposes, our traditional foods? Are we consuming it?”

One reason it’s tough to get clear answers is because there’s a mishmash of oversight, Lepine explained. It’s a situation that leads to “a lot of finger pointing.”

Alberta Environment and Parks sets the rules for tailings treatment, but not the release of those tailings. The Alberta Energy Regulator said it doesn’t have evidence that contaminated groundwater has reached the Athabasca.

And while federal investigators have found toxic substances in groundwater near the oilsands, they couldn’t say for sure if the substances were naturally occurring or the result of a leak. So even though the federal government holds the power to prosecute companies that let their tailings ponds leak, it has never done so.

Critics contend that Ottawa’s inaction amounts to “excuse making.” They say it’s high time the government steps up to the plate. With this report, Canada’s been given a stark reminder that it isn’t allowed to break its own environmental laws.

There are signs those critiques are being heard. “Enough is enough,” Minister of Environment and Climate Change Canada Jonathan Wilkinson said in a statement to The Narwhal. He’s promising to hold law-breaking polluters accountable.

Plenty of people with plenty at stake will be watching.

Take care and contain your messes,


Arik Ligeti
Audience engagement editor

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The Narwhal in the world screenshot of The Star Vancouver website, republishing a Narwhal article Here, there and everywhere is where you can find Narwhal stories these days, thanks to the stellar work of our Local Journalism Initiative reporters Julien Gignac and Matt Simmons.

You may recall in the spring we told you we were adding two new beat reporters, one based in northwest B.C. and the other in Yukon — the result of federal funding to boost media coverage in underserved communities.

It’s an initiative that has seen dozens of reporters hired by news outlets across the country. Not only that, all participating outlets are free to republish any of the stories these reporters file.

And boy are some of these outlets fans of Matt and Julien’s work, none more than the Toronto Star, one of Canada’s largest-circulation papers.

Just this month alone, they’ve republished Julien’s stories about Scotiabank’s refusal to fund drilling in an Arctic refuge, the impact of placer mining on Yukon’s wetlands and the cancellation of a 65-kilometre resource road within a watershed. They’ve also republished two of Matt’s recent stories, one on a life-saving Indigenous coast guard program and another about concerns over a fuel export terminal in Prince Rupert.

That the Toronto Star is recognizing this work is a testament to Matt and Julien’s hard-nosed reporting. And it means that these important stories are reaching more Canadians far and wide.
BECOME A NARWHAL This week in The Narwhal

‘Hero of the planet’: remembering the life and legacy of Wa’xaid Cecil Paul

Wa’xaid Cecil Paul smiling off camera in black and white By Matt Simmons

The Xenaksiala Elder survived residential school and went on to lead the battle to protect B.C.’s Kitlope valley with quiet conviction. Read more.

Scotiabank becomes fifth major Canadian bank to refuse to fund oil drilling in Arctic refuge

caribous standing near water with mountains in the background By Julien Gignac
‘I think the financial institutions have sent a very large signal to the rest of the world,’ says the Chief of the Vuntut Gwitchin First Nation. Read more.

Yukon wetlands pushed to tipping point by placer mining, First Nation and conservationists say

Quartz creek By Julien Gignac
The Yukon Water Board is asking the public to weigh in as the territory considers legislation to protect remaining undisturbed wetlands from small-scale gold mining in streams and riverbeds. Read more.

What’s going on with Alberta Parks closures? Separating fact from fiction on the UCP plan

badlands grassy landscape By Ainslie Cruickshank

Mixed messaging has left environmental groups clamouring for clarity about what exactly the Kenney government is planning to do with a third of all sites in the park system. Read more.

Note from a Narwhal
Remember way back in August when we ran a Narwhal art contest?

Among the dozens of submissions was a pair from Rebecca, 5, and Kaitlyn, 4, in Bawlf, Alta.

We sent all our contest entrants stickers and tattoos, and we even selected Rebecca’s entry as one of our grand prize winners.

Rebecca and Kaitlyn were thrilled with the Nar-mail — and we’ve got the pictures to prove it. Rebecca and Kaitlyn rock Narwhal swag “The girls were over the moon to receive their own mail,” their mom, Natasha, told me. “Arms have been tattooed, pages stickered and toque worn all day at school for hat day.”

We’re so glad. And we hope those big grins also bring a smile to all of you as we muddle through the slog of the winter months.

And if you want to rock a Narwhal toque like Rebecca, may we suggest becoming a member of our pod?

What we’re reading tyee article CBC article The Sword and the Stone movie water leaking gif When you can’t contain the leaks. Tell your friends to get their houses in order and r33

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