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Mr. Speaker, water is life: for Indigenous peoples who have relied on it since time immemorial; for residents who rely on it today for clean drinking water; and for the thousands of species that live and thrive in our North because of it.
I rise today to speak on a disturbing issue that has come to our attention in the past 24- hours.
I was shocked to learn that one of the largest oil sands spills in Alberta was reported in February and I was disappointed that we were not informed by Alberta as per our Bilateral Water Management Agreement.
According to media reports, approximately 5.3 million litres of industrial wastewater spilled over the banks of a storage pond at the Kearl Oil Sands operation north of Fort McMurray. This spill overflowed into forest and wetland adjacent to tributaries of the Muskeg and Firebag Rivers, which flow into the Athabasca River.
In a separate incident at the same site, oil sands tailings effluent of an unknown amount with levels of some contaminants over federal and provincial guidelines has been seeping into groundwater and reaching surface water since May of 2022. Again we were not informed.
It was unfortunate to learn of these incidents second hand. We heard about it from Indigenous governments in the area after a regional municipal government in Alberta reached out to them.
Mr. Speaker, this violates the Bilateral Water Management Agreement with Alberta which commits our governments to communicating quickly and transparently about issues which could affect shared waters. This is not the first time that information hasn’t been shared in a timely manner.
Every indication we have right now is there is no evidence for concern about water quality in the NWT. Enhanced water testing done at Fort Chipewyan by the regional municipality has shown no evidence of contamination of Lake Athabasca, which provides some comfort.
Mr. Speaker, the GNWT is taking several steps to respond to this issue.
We have requested additional information from the Government of Alberta to ensure that we have what is required to communicate to our partners in water management and monitoring about any possible risks.
We will be activating dispute resolution measure in our transboundary agreement with respect to information sharing in light of this breach and I have requested a meeting with the Minister of Environment and Protected Areas to ensure that our bilateral agreement is upheld.
We are currently communicating with Indigenous governments and the Town of Fort Smith to devise a plan for enhanced monitoring of waters in the Slave River to track potential impacts of the incident upstream.
Mr. Speaker, we will continue to work closely with Indigenous governments and communities every step of the way.
This failure comes at a time when the Government of Alberta is asking for trust and cooperation from the NWT as they work towards regulations to allow the release of treated oil sands tailings effluent into the environment.
Important issues like these require trust, and there is no denying the trust of Indigenous governments, community leaders, and our own government has been affected by this lack of transparency.
This event underlines our position: the GNWT will not support the release of oil sands tailings effluent unless rigorous science demonstrates a safe way to do it and information sharing and emergency response provisions under our Agreement are upheld.
This government will ensure Northerners’ voices continue to be heard as we move forward.
Thank you, Mr. Speaker.