With growing evidence that pollutants are causing fish deformities in the Athabasca River and one native village struggling to understand its elevated cancer rates, 33 communities in the Northwest Territories have called for a moratorium on oil sands developments because of fears about water quality.
At a conference in Inuvik, the NWT Association of Communities passed a resolution expressing "widespread concern" that the governments of Canada and Alberta have not managed the oil sands in a way that protects the environment.
"This is no longer just an issue for Albertans, and now poses a risk to all downstream communities in the Mackenzie Basin … in terms of risks to water quality in the Athabasca River posed by leaks from, and even possible failure of, oil sands tailings ponds," states the resolution.
The resolution calls for a halt to new oil sands development until a trans-boundary agreement is in place "that ensures water flowing into the Northwest Territories is clean."
Kevin Kennedy, a Yellowknife city councillor and delegate at the conference, said Tuesday all the communities in the NWT voted in support of the motion.
"Everyone is concerned.…we are hearing all kinds of stories from Fort Chipewyan about human health problems and are concerned with the health of the Northwest Territories as a whole," he said. "We are all downstream from the oil sands."
Yellowknife, on the northern shore of Great Slave Lake, is about 600 kilometres from the oil sands development, near Fort McMurray, in northeastern Alberta.
But Mr. Kennedy said people are worried a tailings pond could fail, sending millions of litres of heavily polluted water into the north-flowing Athabasca River.
Water is used to extract bitumen from the oil sands. In the process, it is contaminated with heavy metals. Tailing ponds at the site now hold 720 billion litres of wastewater.
"There is a major concern that there could be a disaster," Mr. Kennedy said.
One of the events that raised alarms in the NWT was a study, released by Alberta health officials in February, that confirmed a higher-than-expected rate of biliary cancer among residents of the small community of Fort Chipewyan, Alta.
The village is located on Athabasca Lake, 260 kilometres downstream from the oil sands site. The health study did not find a cause for the high levels and did not link the cancer to the environment, or to the oil sands.
But George Poitras, head of government consultations for the Mikisew Cree First Nation, in Fort Chipewyan, said residents fear there is a connection. Mr. Poitras said people have stopped eating fish from Athabasca River, after catching some that had lesions, and many don't trust the water to drink.
"The water that flows from the oil sands past Fort Chipewyan runs on into the NWT. We are the precursor of what they can expect," he said. "I think they are right to be worried."
But Cara Van Marck, a spokesperson for Alberta Environment, said the government has been carefully monitoring water quality near the oil sands since the 1970s.
There have been some pollution discharges, she said, but they have been isolated events and monitoring has not indicated any long-term issues.
"There are no chronic problems," she said. "We haven't found any trends."
She said Alberta hopes to sit down with the Northwest Territories and work out a trans-boundary water agreement this fall.
Ms. Van Marck said companies have a zero tolerance of discharging wastewater into the environment, but there are natural seeps in the area that leak oil into the Athabasca River.
David Schindler, a professor of ecology at the University of Alberta, told the Parliamentary Standing Committee on the Environment this month that ongoing studies have raised some pollution concerns, however.
"There is accumulating evidence that the concentrations of polycyclic aromatics… are causing deformities in fish," he said.