Greens Launch NAFTA Action on Canada Oil Sands

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Greens Launch NAFTA Action on Canada Oil Sands

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Workers use heavy machinery in the tailings pond at the Syncrude oil sands extraction facility near the town of Fort McMurray in Alberta Province, Canada in 2009. Canadian and US environmental groups, as well as citizens, on Wednesday launched a NAFTA complaint alleging Ottawa is not enforcing its own rules by allowing oil sands miners to pollute area waterways. (AFP/File/Mark Ralston)

OTTAWA - 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 the western province of
Alberta. They are subject to environmental provisions under the
federal Fisheries Act, the groups said.

"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, Alberta.

Environment Minister Jim Prentice said there is 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.

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
(RDSa.L), Syncrude Canada Ltd, and Suncor Energy (SU.TO) have
reached surface waters as well the region's ground water.

Environmental Defence Canada estimates the tailings ponds
leak 4 billion liters a year into groundwater, and that could
rise to 25 billion liters a year if all planned projects go
ahead.

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

NAFTA's environmental side-body must first accept the
submission. Representatives of the three NAFTA countries --
Canada, the United States and Mexico -- 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
Price said he knew of no precedent of such action.

"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," Price told reporters.


(Reporting by Louise Egan and Jeffrey Jones; editing by Peter
Galloway)

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