Backgrounder for A People’s Tailings Response Initiative: Study and Action Circle 3 Part Series
Making the Ft. McMurray Tailings “Ponds”  a Provincial Election Issue  


Study and Action Circle Brief Notes on Process  and Goals:  


Participants are invited to view 1 of the Tailings Symposia for each of the Study and Action Circles and to especially focus on  one of the 3 to 5  panelists in each Symposium.  Taking note of the following:  

-a few key phrases or ideas that Albertans need to know. 
-A few commonly held assumptions that Albertans need to challenge. 
-One or more analogies that would help Albertans understand the situation.  eg. “50 plus years of endlessly expanding tailings are akin to a farmer failing to clean the manure from a cattle feed lot in 50 years”.  
-A focus on responsive actions moving forward from the information provided/discussed will be maintained throughout each event.   


Brief Additional Notes on Study and Action Circle Meetings Process

-There will be 2 “health breaks”  held during each event.  
-Study and Action Circles, including the Smaller breakout groups,  will be facilitated, ideally with two facilitators, each one male and one female;  to ensure that  safe and respectful interactions are maintained.  
-Study and Action Circle Events will not be recorded, though written notes on responsive actions will be taken and shared.  
-The 3rd Study and Action Circle, TBC, may be held in person, but will only proceed based on the success of the first two Study and Action Circles and whether or not participants decide to meet a third time.  



The goals of the Tailings Study and Action Circles are to:

  • Provide a supportive space for concerned citizens to study/review information presented  in the Fall 2022 Tailings Symposia co-presented by the Edmonton Chapter, Council of Canadians and Keepers of the Water.
  • Build solidarity between and among Study and Action Circle participants.  
  • Build capacity to participate in the democratic process from an informed position. 
  • Achieve diverse participation, especially in terms of age groups, group affiliations, etc.  , Though, we believe that those who have the capacity to broach this challenging issue are especially called upon to step forward. 
  • To encourage willing and able participants to work together towards shared goals and purposes.  such as:
    • Build public awareness about the Ft. McMurray tailings ‘ponds” to make this a provincial election issue for Spring 2023. 
    • Strengthen issues related social media and web page presence.  
    • Strengthen capacity for issues related media access and influence.  
    • Advocate for a comprehensive audit of the Alberta Energy Regulator especially as related to the Tailings Ponds
    • Advocate for independent studies of industry-produced research that call for tailings release into the Athabasca River. 
    • Research election candidates’ positions on responsible water and tailings management and meet with candidates in person. 
    • Other goals and purposes as determined by participants. 


(Overview of Symposium 1, by Edmonton Chapter member Corinne Benson
“Ponds” a disaster area caused by state monopoly capitalism

Environment and Climate Change Minister Steven Guilbeault announced in mid-August that the government was developing regulations to allow “treated” tailings wastewater to be drained into the Athabasca River as early as 2025, when the current tailings pond will run out of capacity.

In response, the Council of Canadians and Indigenous environmental organization Keepers of the Water organized a series of webinars to inform people of the problems this will pose. The first, “Tailings Ponds: Past and Present,” was held on October 5.

Opening speaker Paul Belanger gave a great summation when he said, “We could have had this symposium twenty years ago, but we were kept in the dark by media and government more interested in maximizing profit and hiding the fact that there was a growing toxic monster – far away in the north, in a cold place called Fort McMurray.”

Although previous Alberta provincial governments had searched for better ways to deal with waste from bitumen processing, things turned for the worse in 2000. That year, Ralph Klein reorganized the Alberta Oil Sands Research Authority (AOSTRA) into a government department called Alberta Energy Research Institute (now Alberta Innovates). “In this change, independent research was lost, and the work on tailing pond reduction and treatment was no longer on the agenda,” said Belanger. “Research was then directed by industry in this new research arm.”

At the same time, in response to industry requests, Klein reduced oil and gas royalties. When his successor Ed Stelmach tried to reverse this policy, the industry complained that it was too expensive and Stelmach’s directive was cancelled by the next Alberta premier. It is easy to see who runs the show here. There is no better example of state monopoly capitalism, in which the state and business are married and become one and the same.

What are the consequences? Keepers of the Water says that “releasing tailings effluent will not only have a detrimental effect on life within the Arctic Ocean Drainage Basin but will also significantly impact what little environmental protections are left for life-giving water across the settler state of Canada.” The harmful effects of oil sands production and leaking toxic tailings ponds include low water levels and loss or contamination of critical species which forces Indigenous people off their own land.

Belanger concludes that Alberta has the world’s largest industrial waste site. He also discussed some current industry efforts to improve the situation. These include a pilot project by Syncrude company to “use the waste petroleum coke from the Fort McMurray upgrader as a kind of charcoal filter to clean up the tailings pond water. This clarifies the water but leaves a high level of salt and about 20 ppm of naphthenic acids and a few other substances.” Even Syncrude project head Warren Zubot admits that using “petcoke” causes cadmium to leach into the “filtered” water.

Naphthenic acids are toxic and are the prime suspect in the higher-than-normal incidence of rare cancers in Fort McMurray and Fort Chipewyan. According to the Alberta Cancer Board, residents of Fort Chipewyan, who live 200 kilometers downstream from the oilsands, were 30 percent more likely to have rare cancers than expected by the provincial average.

Gillian Chow-Fraser from the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society (CPAWS) spoke to the symposium about the size of the “ponds” and noted the deceptive use of the word. Their volume grew by 40 percent between 2010-2015, just after a new directive was introduced to try and curb tailings. By 2020 the fluid tailing area covered over 120 km2 and the total tailings area covered 300 km2. To visualize this, CPAWS superimposed the tailings area over a map of Vancouver, showing that the ponds are more than 2.5 times the size of the city.

Each year, tailings ponds leak about 39 million litres into the surrounding environment. This includes the Muskeg River which is less than a kilometer away from a leaking pond. Chow-Fraser noted that talk of reclaimed tailings ponds is a myth, as none have yet been officially reclaimed.

One part of this picture hit the mainstream press, due to the efforts of the Mikisew Cree First Nation which in 2016 petitioned the World Heritage Committee to list the area of Wood Buffalo as a World Heritage Site in Danger. The joint provincial-federal Oil Sands Monitoring Program cut funding from several Wood Buffalo focused projects, including the Tailings Risk Assessment in 2019, with the Alberta government claiming that existing tailings regulations were sufficient. Yet the very critical area of the Peace Athabasca Delta would be very threatened by any release of treated tailings ponds effluent. All indications are that the monitoring program is in the back pocket of business.

Mandy Olsgard from Integrated Toxicology Solutions also spoke to the symposium about inadequate monitoring, stating that “health risks to wildlife that contact tailings ponds are unknown” and that “Oilsands Monitoring does not include tissue residue monitoring in wildlife species beyond research.” When discussing current threats to the groundwater – and there has been approved seepage of chemicals from tailings ponds into the groundwater – Olsgard said that “Oilsands Monitoring Program reporting is incomplete and often contradictory.” Her greatest fear is the closure and reclamation plans for the tailings.

Here again, there is a spectre of lack of government oversight, with Olsgard saying that that “tailings management does not include health risk reclamation criteria” and reiterating that “environmental policy and regulations do not require or consistently assess surface water for risks to human health.” The ground water is known to have been contaminated but we are uncertain about the surface water.

The people of Alberta, in their excitement for work that pays well and supplies the coffers of the province with some money, have been deprived of a great deal of information on the costs of this endeavor to their land and health. Those expected to pay the highest price are the Indigenous people of northern Alberta, which is the topic of the next symposium.

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