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A tailings pond reflects the Syncrude oilsands mine facility near Fort McMurray, Alta.

Jeff McIntosh/The Canadian Press

Environmental groups launched a complaint against Canada under the North American free-trade agreement on Wednesday, saying the country has failed to enforce anti-pollution rules governing its vast oil sands.

In the latest move in a long-running campaign to highlight the impact of oil sands development, the submission by Environmental Defence Canada, Natural Resources Defense Council and three citizens charges that toxic tailings ponds are being allowed to leak and contaminate ground water.

The ponds store residual oil, heavy metals and other byproducts of oil sands processing in Alberta. They are subject to environmental provisions under the federal Fisheries Act, the groups said.

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"We're out of options when it comes to trying to get the government to enforce its law," Matt Price, policy director at Environmental Defence Canada, told reporters.

"This is one avenue where we can, at the very least, embarrass the Canadian government into trying to enforce its law by having Mexican and U.S. officials essentially poring over our dirty laundry, which is not something Canada wants," he said.

Tailings ponds came to symbolize the battle between green groups and the oil sands industry in 2008, when 1,600 ducks were killed when they landed on a tailings pond at Syncrude Canada Ltd.'s operation. Syncrude faces federal and provincial charges over the incident and the case is now being tried.

Meanwhile, people in a small settlement on Lake Athabasca, downstream from the massive energy projects in northern Alberta, suffer unusually high rates of cancers, but provincial health officials have been reluctant to tie that to water contamination from the oil sands.

One of the three citizens behind the submission lives in that community, Fort Chipewyan, Alta.

Environment Minister Jim Prentice said there are no data to support the allegation that there is leeching from tailing ponds into the Athabasca River, but promised to study the situation more closely.

"I've indicated to the department that this is a serious issue of real concern and that I expect them to step up the monitoring efforts," he told reporters in Ottawa.

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Oil sands developers have countered the green groups with their own communications push, one they expanded last week. They say their environmental standards are high and they are making strides in improving performance.

EDC and NRDC said their NAFTA submission documents cases where tailings leaks from projects run by Royal Dutch Shell PLC, Syncrude and Suncor Energy Inc. have reached surface waters as well the region's ground water.

Environmental Defence Canada estimates the tailings ponds leak four billion litres a year into groundwater, and that could rise to 25 billion litres a year if all planned projects go ahead.

"These tailings ponds are now so vast you can see them from space," Mr. Price said.

NAFTA's environmental side-body must first accept the submission. Representatives of the three NAFTA countries - Canada, the United States and Canada - sit on the body so if two of the three approve, they would investigate in a process that could take up to three years.

Ultimately, it could levy financial penalties, although Mr. Price said he knew of no precedent of such action.

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"Should one of the parties - that's Mexico, Canada or the U.S. - feel that there's a systematic failure on the part of the government to enforce [environmental regulations] the parties can bring a motion for those kinds of financial penalties," Mr. Price told reporters.

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