Site C, growing oil sands mines, and climate change among major threats degrading on world-renowned Peace-Athabasca Delta

June 30, 2023
By: cpawsstaff
photo: Garth Lenz
photo: Garth Lenz

June 30, 2023

Edmonton – A new international report by the World Heritage Committee and the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) has determined Wood Buffalo National Park, and its Peace-Athabasca Delta, is increasingly unsafe from growing industrial threats originating upstream and the impacts of climate change. The report confirms many ecological values are still in decline since the last investigation nearly six years ago. The investigators call on immediate interventions in the Delta to reverse declining trends or “the World Heritage values of the [Delta] will be lost.” 

To fight declining trends, the UN report calls for actions that can guarantee protection of the Athabasca River, Peace River, and the Delta water quality. Of the 17 recommendations, over half address the management or reversal of industrial activities and/or cumulative impacts from beyond the borders of our country’s largest National Park. 

“We are reminded that we cannot let progress be hampered by a slow or inactive provincial government that won’t crack down on an increasing industrial footprint at the doors of Wood Buffalo National Park,” says Gillian Chow-Fraser, Boreal Program Director. “Industrial activities next to our major water sources, like the Peace River and Athabasca River, bear unacceptable costs – and we’re losing Alberta’s world-renowned heritage because of it.” 

The report presents a harsh view of regulations and policies that are failing our sensitive ecosystems and vulnerable communities – emphasizing the need for more robust environmental assessments on projects that happen in headwaters and near major rivers.  

“The report is all too timely with the rapid escalation in public concern about oil sands tailings risks,” says Chow-Fraser, referencing the year-long leak at the Kearl oil sands mine tailings pond, operated by Imperial Oil which has come to light. “We are living through the consequences of a poorly regulated oil sands industry – experiencing the exact risks the IUCN is condemning in this report.”  

The report emphasizes the clear and present risk of tailings seepage entering surface waters of the Athabasca River. The report calls for several actions to reform and improve management of tailings risks to the Athabasca River, calling for a risk assessment of the tailings ponds, a clear strategy consistent for the reclamation of tailing ponds by 2026 and a re-evaluation and adoption of a collaborative, systematic, science-based monitoring system to detect oil sands impacts.  

In response to the proposal of treating and releasing tailings fluids into the Athabasca River, the mission foresees substantial risk to the ecological health of the river and to the human health of nearby communities if this were to occur, depending on the treatment process. 

The request for a tailings risk assessment is nothing new – in fact, the World Heritage Committee has requested this assessment nearly every year since 2017. While the Alberta representatives “called into question the importance of this risk assessment”, the UN investigators make it clear that with “the continued expansion of the tailings ponds area and volume, this [systematic risk assessment] recommendation remains a priority.” 

Within the recommendations, the independent investigators also call for critical actions such as: expanding protected areas buffering the outside of the national park, including consideration for Indigenous Protected and Conserved Areas (IPCAs), strengthening Alberta’s land use plans to sufficiently address cumulative impacts, improving monitoring and research on Whooping Cranes and Wood Bison, and improving co-governance structures to more effectively share decision-making powers with Indigenous communities. 

The Mission ultimately finds that it is too early to tell if the actions taken so far will be enough to reverse downward trends in the Park. It does not recommend the park is added to the list of World Heritage in Danger, yet, but does request another investigation takes place in 2026 to re-evaluate.

Read the full report here: https://whc.unesco.org/en/list/256/documents/  

For more information:

Gillian Chow-Fraser, Boreal Program Director, CPAWS Northern Alberta [email protected] (780-777-0715) 

BACKGROUND:  

The Peace-Athabasca Delta is world-renowned as one of the largest freshwater inland deltas, providing habitat for a swath of wildlife, including millions of migratory birds. The delta is largely encompassed by Wood Buffalo National Park, which due to its global significance, is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Deteriorating conditions of the Peace-Athabasca delta has led to investigations by the UNESCO World Heritage Committee into its ecosystem health and threats facing the park.  

In August 2022, the IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature) and UNESCO World Heritage committee carried out a “Reactive Monitoring Mission” (a formal term for investigation into the ecological condition of Wood Buffalo National Park). The World Heritage committee requested this investigation to further look into the deteriorating ecological integrity of Wood Buffalo National Park, following an initial report and recommendations completed in 2016. 

 

ADDITIONAL INFORMATION:  

The Reactive Monitoring Mission (2022) put forward 17 recommendations, listed below. 

Recommendation 1 

Strengthen efforts to transition to a genuine partnership with indigenous rightsholders in the governance and management of the property, in particular by: 

  • Supporting the Indigenous Caucus in developing an indigenous led vision for a shared governance model for WBNP, based on the values of respect and equity, which focuses on commonalities and respects differences by including both park-wide and locally tailored components; 
  • operationalizing the Cooperative Management Committee by jointly developing the Terms of Reference agreed by all indigenous rightsholders and PCA and ensure that effective decision-making mechanisms are in place; 
  • supporting indigenous communities’ initiatives of interpreting and valorising the values of WBNP reflecting holistic indigenous worldviews and cultural elements of indigenous ways of life.  

Recommendation 2 

Complete hydrologic modelling and ELOHA (environmental flows assessment) tools that are essential to understanding the current hydrology (i.e., existing condition) of the Peace River and the PAD, the natural, pre-Bennett Dam baseline condition, the impact of climate change, and the feasibility of benefits to be derived from proposed water control structures and strategic flow releases on the OUV of the property. 

Recommendation 3 

Construct and repair water control structures in the PAD (such as the planned weir at Dog Camp) only after modelling and environmental flows tools have been completed, allowing an understanding of the benefits to the PAD, potential interactive effects and downstream impacts. 

Recommendation 4 

Ensure that no further dam projects on the Peace River are approved, including the proposed Amisk Project, until sufficient tools are in place to evaluate impacts on the hydrology of the PAD. 

Recommendation 5 

Urgently establish an interjurisdictional mechanism for effective water governance to allow for the critical decision-making needed for key corrective actions in terms of ecological flow releases and potentially water control structure to protect the OUV of the property.  

Recommendation 6 

Before 2026, decide on a set of concrete mitigation measures including ecological flow releases and the construction of required water control structures to correct the impacts of the W.A.C. Bennett Dam and other alterations of the hydrology of the PAD, including increased impacts from climate change, and agree on operational strategies and interjurisdictional protocols for the implementation of the adopted mitigation measures as well as a budget sufficient for their implementation. 

Recommendation 7 

Urgently and before the end of 2023, conduct an independent systematic risk assessment of the tailings ponds of the Alberta Oil Sands region with a focus on risks to the PAD, and submit the report of this assessment to the World Heritage Centre, for review by IUCN, in accordance with Paragraph 172 of the Operational Guidelines. 

Recommendation 8 

Re-evaluate and adapt (as needed) collaborative, systematic, science-based monitoring of oil sands impacts on the Athabasca River and PAD to ensure sufficient parameters, sampling design, and protocols are employed to detect impacts. Long-term monitoring and syntheses of long-term data will be essential to establishing baselines, detecting changes, and communicating impacts. 

Recommendation 9 

Before 2026, develop a clear, consensus-based strategy consistent with precautionary principles for the reclamation of tailing ponds, including the treatment and disposal of OSPW, which guarantees protection of the Athabasca River’s and PAD’s water quality and avoids any impacts on the OUV of the property. 

Recommendation 10 

Ensure that all major development projects in the headwaters of the PAD, including all oil sands mining extension projects, are designated for federal impact assessments and specifically address potential impacts on the OUV of the property, in line with the Guidance and Toolkit for Impact Assessments in a World Heritage Context and submit these Environmental and Social Impact Assessments (ESIAs) to the World Heritage Centre.  

Recommendation 11 

Ensure that all impact assessments of other projects in the larger landscape around the property not undergoing federal impact assessment and under the responsibility of the Government of Alberta fully consider the OUV of the property and the concerns of indigenous rightsholders beyond the direct footprint of the project. 

Recommendation 12 

Expedite the preparation of a land use plan for the Lower Peace, building on lessons learned from the LARP and use the ongoing review process to address the deficiencies in the LARP identified by the 2015 Review Panel, taking into account the increased understanding on cumulative impacts as documented in the SEA, including from climate change. The revised LARP should include indicators and thresholds to support decision-making and approvals and require a biocultural approach to ensure that cumulative effects management fully considers the OUV of the property and in particular impacts of the desired outcomes identified in the SEA for the PAD. 

Recommendation 13 

Ensure that the innovative Integrated Research and Monitoring Programme developed under the Action Plan, which is integrating indigenous knowledge with Western science, is standardized and sustained over time in order to understand trends and dynamics in response to various pulse (e.g., ice-jam flooding) and press (e.g., climate change) disturbances that affect the OUV of the PAD and across WBNP. 

Recommendation 14 

Further strengthen the monitoring of flagship species, in particular by: 

  • establishing a programme for enhanced monitoring of Whooping Cranes that have come into contact with OSPW to clarify the potential impacts on the population; 
  • continuing to improve methods for generating more frequent population estimates of Wood Bison in WBNP and in the disease-free, genetically-distinct Ronald Lake Bison Herd; 
  • continuing research to develop disease assays and vaccination as needed to reduce risk of spread to the disease-free Ronald Lake Bison herd.  

Recommendation 15 

Continue efforts to create a buffer zone around the property, as recommended by the Operational Guidelines for the Implementation of the World Heritage Convention, in particular by: 

  • Further extending Kitaskino Nuwenëné Wildland Provincial Park by including the missing blocks around the Athabasca River as well as the area in the south still covered by a forest concession license; 
  • putting in place urgently a co-management system for all newly created Wildland Provincial Parks in cooperation with the indigenous rightsholders, with appropriate resourcing and with clear management objectives which take into account the protection of the OUV; 
  • further extending in particular in the Lower Peace region, including by considering options for forest leases situated between the Birch River Wildland Provincial Park and the Caribou Mountains Wildland Provincial Park; 
  • formally designating a buffer zone according to paragraphs 103–107 of the Operational Guidelines for the Implementation of the World Heritage Convention. 

Recommendation 16 

Revise the 10-year Management Plan based on an agreed indigenous-led vision for a shared governance model for WBNP and integrating strategies to address the key conservation concerns for the property as resulting from the SEA and the Action Plan. 

Recommendation 17 

Further streamline the implementation of the Action Plan by: 

  • organize a bi-annual review of the overall implementation of the Action Plan, involving senior management officials from the Governments of Canada, Alberta, British Columbia and Northwest Territories as well as representatives of indigenous rightsholders and civil society to assess if the planned actions are yielding the required impact and allow for adaptive management;
  • before the end of 2023, update the Action Plan to consider the recommendations of the current Reactive Monitoring mission;
  • develop for each theme of the Action Plan clear impact indicators to complement the colour coded tracking mechanism currently in place;
  • ensure long-term and multiannual support and funding for capacity building for indigenous rightsholders to allow for effective, informed and full participation in the various Action Plan Task teams and working groups and the meaningful inclusion of indigenous knowledge in its implementation;
  • develop a clear multi-year budget estimate for the full implementation of the Action Plan, specifying the required budget allocations from both federal and provincial levels and ensure that the budget allocations are foreseen for full implementation of the Action Plan also beyond 2026.
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