Imperial Oil’s latest toxic tailings pond leak must be a wake-up call for governments

© Garth Lenz tailings pond. These vast toxic lakes are completely free and nearly a dozen of them lie on either side of the Athabasca River. Individual ponds can be as large as 8,850 acres.

Have you heard of the recent leak from Imperial Oil’s tailings “pond” in Alberta? Over 5.3 million liters of toxic sewage was spilled into the environment – enough to fill two Olympic-size swimming pools. This leak adds to the evidence that oil exploration in Canada’s tar sands is unsafe and damaging to biodiversity and indigenous communities downstream.

The federal government needs to take a more active role in holding oil companies accountable for safely containing and disposing of their toxic waste. The “ponds” of tar sands tailings contain over 1.4 trillion liters of toxic oil-related waste and cover an area more than twice the size of Vancouver.

For years, indigenous communities have raised concerns about tailings spills, and a Report of the Environmental Cooperation Commission published in 2020 confirms their concerns. Despite this, the Alberta and federal governments have ignored this case of environmental racism for over 45 years, allowing for disasters like the recent Imperial leak.

It was only after the Alberta Energy Regulator publicly announced that Imperial Oil had until the end of the month to come up with a suitable plan to stop the leak and deal with its aftermath that the incident was brought to light. That announcement also revealed that a second uncontrolled release had occurred at the same facility since May. (Shortcut)

The toxic waste spill is not just an isolated incident; it is a sign of a much bigger problem that has been ignored for far too long. There are nineteen toxic tailings “ponds” in the tar sands region, each representing one massive danger to human and ecological health. Governments have negligently allowed the problem to escalate to this point without requiring companies to come up with plans to prevent chemicals from entering the environment and downstream communities.

Nevertheless, there is still so much to fight for: The Athabasca River flows into the second largest freshwater delta in the world and has immense water masses ecological value. Indigenous communities downstream of the tar sands have worked hard to maintain land-based tuition and practice traditional ceremonies despite the takeover of the industry. It is time the government made the safety and well-being of indigenous communities and the environment a priority, by holding the oil industry accountable for the destruction it has caused.

You can demand that the federal government intervene to stop tailings pollution:

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