Tough times for northern water quality

The Mackenzie River system winds over 4,000 kilometres through northern Canada. It is the second longest river system in North America, after the Mississippi, and drains a watershed of 1.8 million square kilometres — roughly the size of Manitoba, Saskatchewan and Alberta combined — into the Arctic. With development in Canada’s north increasing annually, this last great, nearly pristine ecosystem is in jeopardy of becoming polluted beyond repair.

Two of the Mackenzie’s three main tributaries — the Peace and the Athabasca — are already used heavily by industry, while the Great Bear River remains practically untouched. Currently, oil and gas interests in the north have proposed a major development that would follow the Mackenzie River to connect the rich deposits of oil and gas in the Beaufort Sea with production centres and existing infrastructure in northern Alberta. The Mackenzie Valley Pipeline, as the project has been dubbed, would be the largest development initiative in Canada’s north, and has already been before a joint panel review for years with no final ruling in sight.

While the proposed Mackenzie Valley Pipeline and the developments involved in creating, maintaining and upgrading such an ambitious project likely pose the greatest potential threat to the generally pristine environment of Canada’s north, it is by no means the only one. The Peace River drains water from the Rockies in northeastern British Columbia through northern Alberta, where it meets the Athabasca. At the headwaters of the Peace, the W.A.C. Bennett dam collects snowmelt from the mountains. B.C. Hydro’s control over release rates, in accordance with energy demands, creates a variable flow of water that is counter to season norms, wreaking havoc downstream much like Manitoba Hydro’s activity in northern Manitoba.

The area is also home to rampant oil and gas development and exploration, including a controversial new method of procuring natural gas from previously unavailable sources. Hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking,” is a process whereby water and chemicals are pumped into the earth under high pressure to fracture troublesome layers of shale in order to access natural gas trapped inside. The chemicals involved in fracking are a well-kept trade secret, and no legislation exists in British Columbia or Alberta requiring companies to publicly list chemicals pumped into the ground. However, fracking has been linked to bizarre and dangerous contaminations of drinking water across the United States — where the practice has been common since the Second World War — and lately in Alberta. Contamination of ground water in this manner will quite likely lead to contamination of river waters if kept unchecked, as thousands of litres of chemicals are pumped into the ground annually in the area.

While threats to the Peace include water degradation and heavy metal overload from the Bennett Dam, potential development of a further “Site C” Dam below the Bennett and ground water contamination from fracking, the problems the Athabasca face are much more publicized. Sitting on the banks of the Athabasca in northern Alberta is Fort McMurray and the monstrous tar sands projects.

Water downstream from this energy mega-project has been reported to contain heavy metals and toxins at up to 30 times the acceptable level, much of it from air pollution that settles in the watershed and is then washed into waterways. Fish downstream have also been reported suffering a variety of deformities and cancers unheard of 30 years ago, which gravely affects the food supply for First Nations and Métis communities who have relied on fish for sustenance for years without problems — until now. In Fort Chipewyan, the closest community downstream from Fort McMurray, cancer rates are also 30 per cent higher than they should be, according to a 2009 Alberta Cancer Board study.

On top of contaminated water flowing from tar sands projects, the Athabasca River also faces problems associated with heavy water extraction at the hands of the tar sands projects, reducing the volume of water flowing north. For every barrel of oil processed from the bitumen in northern Alberta, an average of four barrels of water from the Athabasca is required. Much of this water is then stored in tailings ponds alongside the Athabasca, which have been responsible for the deaths of thousands of migratory birds. While, to date, the tailing ponds have proven stable, recent events overseas have re-sparked concerns over the long-term safety of these earthen dams.

All of this water eventually flows north and out to the Beaufort Sea. The great potential for economic development in Canada’s north comes with massive potential for damaging the north’s generally pristine freshwater and marine environments. While economic development is clearly desirable and easily quantifiable, the value of ecological services provided in the north are not so easily understood, let alone valued monetarily. The concerns of Aboriginal peoples in the north — with whom the federal government has a legal duty to consult — environmentalists and other interested parties ought to be given equal weight to the clamour of economic incentives that generally drown out such debate.