Public hearings begin on proposed oil sands mining expansion
Public hearings concerning Shell’s Jackpine Mine Expansion project begin today in Fort McMurray. A coalition of three groups (Pembina Institute, Alberta Wilderness Association and Fort McMurray Environmental Association) who are jointly called The Oil Sands Environmental Coalition, several expert witnesses and representatives of the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation community will be testifying over the coming weeks.
Those opposed to the mine see these hearings as a kind of crossroads. Simon Dyer, Policy Director at the Pembina Institute says, “The environmental impact assessment for this project offers the clearest indication we've ever seen that the cumulative impacts of planned oil sands development are just too high to be considered responsible.”
Carolyn Campbell, a conservation specialist with the Alberta Wilderness Association, is particularly concerned about the impact on wildlife habitat. “Because the mine projects scrape off 70m or more off the top of the ground to get to the bitumen, obviously they have really profound effects on the land and water.” In an environmental model completed by Shell, it is estimated that 13 of 22 valued wildlife species will be losing 20 percent of their habitat. “Woodland caribou, wetland birds – once their habitat is destroyed,” said Campbell, “it takes decades and decades (if ever) to come back.”
Campbell laments that there hasn’t been a strong enough federal or provincial initiative to protect at-risk habitat. “There shouldn’t be another strip mine on this landscape. The Athabasca river corridor has already been too heavily infested – it’s on one of North America’s major migratory bird routes, the Athabasca River itself is rich with fish species, and downstream communities depend on the fish and the wildlife.” Dr. Glenn Miller, a professor at Nevada University’s department of natural resources and environmental science who will also be testifying as an expert witness at the hearings, estimates that it will be “decades if not centuries” before the receiving waters and pit lakes are ecologically sound and useful again.
Dyer also points out that there is a lack of regulatory action on the waste front. “There are rules on the books, but those laws are not enforced,” he said, “We did a report on Directive 74 (the tailings directive brought in after the Syncrude Canada ducks incident) which brought tailings ponds to the attention of Canadians a few years ago. Seven out of nine companies are actually not meeting those regulations.” Dyer explains that there is a ‘damage bond system’ in place which is intended to protect taxpayers from having to pay for the clean-up after the oil companies move on. However, the system in place is valued at “less than $900 million dollars for all the companies together, [while] an independent assessment would suggest that the actual liability is about 15 billion dollars.”
Additionally, recent amendments to the Canadian Environmental Assessment Act (CEAA) have reduced the ability of the Canadian public to participate in the hearings. Melissa C. Gorrie, a staff lawyer at Ecojustice who will be appearing in court in Fort McMurray today says, “There was a deadline for providing submissions to appear at the hearing, and to have your voice be heard, [but] there’s been changes to the assessments law in Canada recently, which have narrowed the field of who can appear – it used to be public and open to anyone.”
“I hope it’s something that Canadians are paying attention to, [specifically] paying attention to what is being said by Shell and by the interveners (like our clients) and raising the environmental concerns,” said Gorrie, “Development is important but you have to consider all the environmental impacts that go along with that development, and that’s what we’re asking the panel to do at the hearing.”
Shell Canada was unavailable for comment.