Prairie Mines & Royalty ULC Conviction and $4.5 Million Fine Does Little to Reduce Threat to UNESCO World Heritage Site

Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation (ACFN) – Mikisew Cree First Nation

First Nations remain appalled by the lack of Alberta government oversight, transparency and consideration of impacts to human and ecosystem health with respect to the Obed Mountain Mine tailing spill.

(Fort McMurray, AB) The Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation (ACFN) and the Mikisew Cree First Nation (MCFN) are encouraged that Prairie Mines & Royalty ULC was fined nearly $4.5 million in federal (see here) and provincial (see here) penalties for their Oct 31, 2013 tailing spill at the Obed Mountain Mine.

The Obed spill released approximately 670 million litres of coal sludge into the Athabasca River system resulting in a contaminant plume drifting downstream which reached the community of Fort Chipewyan and Wood Buffalo National Park (WBNP), a UNESCO World Heritage site.

However the two First Nations remain frustrated by the complete lack of transparency following the spill. The First Nations assert that neither the Province or Prairie Mines & Royalty considered Treaty or inherent rights when assessing impacts, and as a result, impacts from the spill have been grossly underestimated.

While fines of this nature are needed to demonstrate that polluters will be held accountable in Alberta, the First Nations remain appalled by the lack of government oversight, transparency and consideration of impacts to human and ecosystem health with respect to the spill. A serious lack of coherent information about impacts from the spill continue, and leave community members worried about consumption of traditional foods such as fish. Outright negligence by Prairie Mines & Royalty and the regulator led to the spill and so far no protective measures to help prevent future incidents of this type have been implemented.

“The fact remains, our peoples have lived on these lands since time immemorial and we have faced decades of intense development upstream of our communities. My ancestors didn't sign Treaty to have our rights, our health, our wellbeing ignored. The entire regulatory system in this province is failing our people,” stated Chief Allan Adam of the ACFN.

“The government, the Alberta Energy Regulator (AER), and all of those responsible for the degradation of our lands and waterways have failed with respect to protection of the environment and the rights of Indigenous peoples,” stated Melody Lepine, Director of the MCFN Government and Industry Relations. 

Alberta’s response to the Obed spill stands in stark contrast to the approach employed by government of British Columbia in response to a similar incident at Mount Polley, where a failed tailings pond spilled 25-million cubic metres of contaminated mining waste into Quesnel Lake. There, an independent expert engineering panel released the causes of the spill after a six month investigation, and 17 recommendations to improve the management of Tailings Storage Facilities were immediately considered by the B.C government. While investigations were more transparent in B.C, no charges have yet been laid in B.C., which prompted MiningWatch Canada to bring forth a private lawsuit against Mount Polley Mining Corporation and the B.C. government. In Alberta, any recommendations to prevent future spills have yet to be developed, almost four years later.

“We can no longer accept the status quo of business as usual especially when it is our people’s rights that are being eroded when incidents like this happen. And worse yet the companies are not being held liable for long term impacts to species and waterways that ultimately impact our ability to continue our Treaty and inherent rights in the region,” continued Melody Lepine.

Coal Valley Resources Inc.’s* own Final Impact Assessment, which was approved by the Government of Alberta, concluded that fish populations downstream of the incident were statistically higher in certain heavy metals and that spilled material was remobilized and settled in the Peace Athabasca Delta, part of a UNESCO world heritage site. The UNESCO site in particular came under intense scrutiny already recently, when the UN’s World Heritage Centre released a draft report demanding Canada deliver a major and timely response to 17 recommendations or risk inscription of the Wood Buffalo National Park on the List of World Heritage in Danger. One recommendation in particular was to “Conduct a systematic risk assessment of the tailings ponds of the Alberta Oil Sands region with a focus on risks to the Peace-Athabasca Delta, and submit the report of this assessment to the World Heritage Centre. Despite these rather alarming trends, and warnings the Government of Alberta’s regulator still does not see the need to extend long-term fish and wildlife monitoring efforts into the Peace Athabasca Delta.

”I’m appalled by how the whole Prairie Mines & Royalty Obed incident was handled, but I’m also not surprised. It is just another example of how the government’s inability to effectively monitor and enforce policies to protect land, water, air and the rights of Indigenous peoples in the province,” concluded Chief Adam.

* The AER initially laid charges in October 2015 against Coal Valley Resources Inc. (CVRI) and its parent company Sherritt International Corporation operating as Sherritt Coal. CVRI has since been purchased by Westmoreland Coal Company and was subsequently amalgamated into Prairie Mines & Royalty ULC. 

To set up an interview please contact:

  • Lisa Tssessaze, Director IRC, ACFN 780-791-3311
  • Melody Lepine, Director GIR, MCFN 780-792-8736