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City councillor wants tar sands halted

Tim Edwards
Northern News Services
Published Friday, March 27, 2009

SOMBA K'E/YELLOWKNIFE - City council appears set to vote in favour of a motion calling on Alberta's government to halt new tar sands development south of the NWT border.

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photo courtesy of Suncor Energy Suncor Energy's tar sands development project near Fort McMurray, Alta. City council will vote on a motion next month which calls on the Alberta government to halt tar sands development until a number of environmental measures have been met.

Tar Sand Demands:

  1. Public contingency plans for catastrophic breaches of oil sands tailing ponds.
  2. A plan to fix existing leaks in current tailings ponds.
  3. A 10-year plan to reclaim all existing tailings ponds that does not involve any releases of toxic effluents into the river system.
  4. A commitment to use dry tailings, or better technology for all future tar sands developments.
  5. A commitment to develop the above measures, as well as a proper assessment of the cumulative effects of tar sands projects, through meaningful public consultation with standing in the process for NWT communities.
  6. A binding trans-boundary water agreement be completed.

The tar sands motion is one of three motions council wants to present to the NWT Association of Communities (NWTAC) when the group meets this May.

"It's key at this time that communities voice their concerns about the sands affecting their water supply," said city councillor Shelagh Montgomery, who gave notice of the motion at a council committee meeting Monday.

Councillors appeared to be in overall support of the tar sands motion. The only dissenting voice belonged to Coun. David Wind. Coun. Bob Brooks left the meeting before the tar sands discussion, declaring a conflict due to his job with Industry, Tourism and Investment.

The motion calls on the Alberta government to halt tar sands development until a number of measure have been met, include contingency plans for breaches in tailings ponds and a binding trans-boundary water agreement between the province and the territory.

"The proposals are too one-sided and do not speak to the benefits of the oil sands," said Wind, adding though he did agree with the idea in principle, he would probably not vote in favour of the motion as is.

Wind said the tar sands are big money for Canada and employ many people, and in the current fragile economy, a halt to development could pack quite the blow - a sentiment echoed by the Alberta government.

"Obviously the oil sands are a key driver in the country's economy," said Jason Chance, director of communications for the Alberta ministry of energy, in an interview.

"It's essential that they continue to produce."

Chance defended the tar sands, saying that, "the Athabasca River is probably one of the most closely monitored bodies of water in the world. It is monitored (for quality) constantly."

The waters of the Athabasca River are used in the processing of the sands into oil. The river connects to Lake Athabasca, the Slave River and ultimately Great Slave Lake.

Peggy Holroyd of the Pembina Institute gave a presentation to council in which she said, "the amount of fresh water that oil sands operators are licensed to take from the river each year exceeds the annual needs of a city of three million people."

"That will continue to grow as production grows."

Other concerns are that if the tailings ponds, which are huge pools of toxic leftover water, were to spill into the Athabasca River, the results would be catastrophic. Several tailings ponds are located near, or right next to the river, and are very large.

"The tailings ponds cover 130 kilometres-squared. They can be seen from space," said Holroyd, adding there is also concern that pollutants from the ponds could seep into groundwater.

Council will vote April 14 on whether to send the motion to the association of communities. The association, whose president is Mayor Gord Van Tighem, will then have to decided whether to accept the motion.

If passed at that point, Van Tighem will forward the non-binding motion to the premiers of Alberta and the NWT, the Federation of Canadian Municipalities, and to Prime Minister Stephen Harper.

Other motions presented for the association of communities, included one calling for bottled water to be phased out in municipal facilities, and a proposal to amend the Commissioner's Land Act to give municipal governments more say in land transfers from the federal government to the public and private sectors in their municipalities.