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Scarecrows float in a Suncor oil sands tailings pond, to keep birds from landing, in Fort McMurray Alta., on June 13, 2017.

JASON FRANSON/The Canadian Press

Some of Alberta’s oil sands tailings ponds are leaking into groundwater surrounding the sites, according to a new report, a conclusion federal Environment Minister Jonathan Wilkinson called “troubling” and impossible to ignore.

The report, released Thursday, is the culmination of two years of research stemming from a complaint that the federal government was shirking its responsibilities under the Fisheries Act by allowing toxic water to make its way into the Athabasca River. It was penned by the Commission for Environmental Cooperation (CEC), an international organization created under the North American free-trade agreement and kept under the new trade pact.

Tailings ponds are essentially holding areas that contain waste water, sand, silt and petrochemical waste from the oil sands mining process.

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The CEC report found strong evidence that the ponds are seeping into groundwater. Although there is little evidence tailings waste is reaching the Athabasca River, the report noted that elevated levels of naphthenic acid in two tributaries – Beaver River and McLean Creek – likely mean they are receiving runoff from nearby ponds. (Naphthenic acid is one of the main components of tailings.)

The finding aligns with data from Syncrude and Suncor submitted to the CEC, which both showed “consistent evidence of seepage” from tailings ponds into some groundwater wells close to Athabasca River tributaries.

Mr. Wilkinson told The Globe and Mail Thursday evening that tailings pond seepage must be “urgently” addressed, particularly considering the structures were never intended to be permanent storage solutions for oil sands waste.

“We really do need to ratchet up the urgency with which we’re addressing this to ensure that we are moving towards longer-term solutions, to give comfort to communities that live downstream from the oil sands, but also ensure we’re not creating enormous environmental liabilities for Canadians in the future,” he said.

To that end, the federal government is developing regulations on safe contamination levels, similar to those that guide sewage plants and metal mines.

From 2009 to 2014, Environment Canada undertook a swath of proactive water testing around oil sands sites, including Syncrude’s Mildred Lake and Beaver Creek, Canadian Natural Resources Limited’s Horizon operation, two Suncor ponds and Shell’s Jackpine Project and its Muskeg River external tailings pond.

Tailings pond inspections changed to a complaint-based system in 2014, but switched back in 2019.

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Despite at least 15 instances where levels of toxic substances in groundwater exceeded federal guidelines, Environment Canada told the CEC it didn’t pursue violations because it couldn’t prove “beyond reasonable doubt” that the elevated levels were caused by leaking and were not naturally occurring.

The problem is that it’s difficult to determine whether bitumen-derived organics in water come via a tailings pond, because bitumen occurs naturally throughout the Athabasca oil sands region; on a hot day, the report notes, “bituminous sands on the banks of the Athabasca River can be seen bleeding from the outcrop face into the river.”

Still, the report notes that recent studies show “strong scientifically valid evidence” of liquid from the ponds seeping into nearby groundwater.

Daniel Smith, who oversees enforcement for the federal Environment and Climate Change Department in Northern Alberta, told The Globe that technology has improved by leaps and bounds in recent years and the most recent samples are undergoing testing using the new science.

The department doesn’t have a definitive answer yet on whether the contamination is natural or from the mines, he said, “but we hope to find out in the near future.”

He said the enforcement branch will be taking more water samples this fall.

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“If we do find evidence of a violation in the Fisheries Act, we will take appropriate action,” he said.

Mr. Wilkinson said his government has also allocated an additional $46-million to environmental enforcement, a “significant component” of which is earmarked for the oil sands.

Concerns that tailings waste is seeping into groundwater and surface water have been raised for over a decade throughout the Athabasca region.

The complaint to the CEC was filed by two environmental groups and a Canadian resident, Daniel T’seleie. The trio cited environmental assessments for oil sands projects and scientific studies which predicted or documented seepage from tailings ponds into the environment, and argued the toxic water was entering the groundwater system and ultimately ending up in the Athabasca River.

It its report, the CEC also examined how the Oil Sands Monitoring Program works, and how it and the Alberta Energy Regulator’s authority over oil sands monitoring fit with Canada’s enforcement of the Fisheries Act.

The report found a lack of communication and resource-sharing between Ottawa and Alberta, noting the two regulatory systems overlap only when it comes to joint environmental reviews for new oil sands facilities.

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