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Coalition speaks out on Northern Alberta land use plan

by Trevor Kehoe


First nations groups, respected scientists, lawyers and scholars were in Edmonton recently speaking out on the government of Alberta’s draft Lower Athabasca Regional Plan (LARP) and its failure to address current oilsands related issues.

Local and international criticism has put the spotlight on the prairie province to deal with current issues before they push forward with increased development in the largest energy project on earth.

The LARP is an attempt to find solutions to problems that have faced local communities over the last 30 years, but some say it is a superficial gesture.

Worsening conditions with increased production have sparked calls for changes to the way the industry operates.

Many say the plan fails to address worsening environmental and health concerns for local communities.

“There’s very little accommodation to the rights of first nations. Some consultation happens and the government basically counts the number of times they communicate, but at the end of the day there’s no real negotiation, no real discussion,” said Monique Passelac-Ross of the Canadian Institute of Resource Law, at the University of Calgary who has been involved in a few papers regarding land use and water rights in Alberta.

“The government takes the information and often doesn’t give any feedback to first nations on what they’ve submitted, so it’s a very frustrating process. Information just goes into a ‘black box’ and that has lead the first nations to the situation where they may go to court to force the government to listen.”

The issue of water and land rights between first nations and the government perpetuates due to fundamental differences that continue since treaty eight constitutional rights were signed into effect over 100 years ago on June 21, 1899.

“The government has a very narrow view of what first nations rights are. Those rights have constitutional protection and the government pays lip service to that and says ‘sure you first nations have rights to proper compensation, these rights were guaranteed by the treaty that you signed with us the crown’, but then they say the treaty also allows us to take lands to develop from time to time and that’s what were doing. As long as we’re consulting with you a little bit were doing our job. But the consultation process as defined by the courts needs to be more rigorous than what the government applies.”

Recommendations on environmental issues have been coming from scientists since the 1990’s, while numerous submissions have been made from the Mikisew Cree and Athabasca Chipewyan first nations on land use planning and environmental degradation that for the most part have gone unheard.

Many are concerned the LARP is a formula for the government to increase expansion and development in northern Alberta unabated without dealing with the current concerns.

The development of key plans such as land disturbance and biodiversity will not be developed under the plan until 2013 while over 30 proposed oilsands surface mines, in-situ extraction and refinery upgrades are currently on the table to be approved by Alberta’s National Energy Board.

“We will be looking at challenging the LARP in courts if they don’t change it to reflect some of the recommendations that we have made. They have committed to meeting with our consultants and our team to review the recommendations but there’s no commitment that they will incorporate any of them,” said Mikisew Cree First Nation Chief Roxanne Marcel.

“I don’t think they even understand the impacts of what’s happening there and what the impacts are going to be in the near future. They haven’t really come up with a good plan on how to address them.”

Marcel said the Mikisew have been working closely with the Athabasca Chipewyan first nation in a hope that the Alberta government and industry rethink their actions and consider the long term effects that could devastate the natural landscape for generations to come.

She made a point to note that they are not against development in the area, they merely want to see a plan in place for the project to move forward without a negative impact.

“Were not opposing the oilsands, were opposing the way the government is implementing policies and proceeding without considering the impacts and what will occur in the future. They’re just doing all these ad hoc policies and the belief is that they will deal with whatever comes at the time.”

Marcel is hopeful the government will open their ears and make changes that could lead to a brighter future, but said she is willing to reach out to the United Nations and other organizations that may be able to offer influence should their concerns not be addressed.

First nations groups have been joined by world-renowned scientists speaking out on the direct impacts oilsands operations are having on local communities and the natural environment.

Dr. David Schindler from the University of Alberta has added his voice to the discussion after having published papers studying water use and contamination noting increases in harmful substances.

He has called into question the governmental Regional Aquatics Monitoring Program (RAMP) and recognizing the growing scale of mining in the area has asked for more studies of the ‘sources, transport, fate and effects of contaminants in the Athabasca system’.

Other studies including one published in 2007 by water ecologist Kevin Timoney with the Treeline Ecological Research institute also noted serious water contamination issues adversely effecting populations downstream from oilsands operations.

Primary contaminants included arsenic, mercury and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons with serious risks to those eating from the land and drinking untreated water.

Other chemical contaminants found in water included aluminum, chromium, cobalt, copper, iron, lead, phosphorus, selenium, titanium, total phenols, herbicides and pesticides as well as traces of ammonia, antimony, manganese, nickel and molybdenum.

Elevated arsenic concentrations have been associated with type two diabetes, cancers of the bile duct, liver, urinary tract, skin and vascular diseases.

With oilsands production expected to double over the next 10 years, provincial changes that take into account the concerns of local communities now will play a huge role in the future outlook of these communities.

The LARP will identify and set resources and environmental management outcomes for air, land, water, biodiversity and guide future resource decisions while considering social and economic impacts.

The 10-step program includes developing an overall regional profile with key economic, environmental and social factors of the region, terms of references, three phases of consultation and a regional advisory council giving input to governments. The regional plan is now being developed for cabinet approval before implementation.

“There have been a number of media stories talking about some of the issues that the public has had about land ownership rights and aboriginal concerns about access to traditional use areas. We think we’ve addressed their concerns and that the final version of the LARP will have addressed a number of their (other) concerns. I think they’re already addressed in the cumulative effects monitoring that’s built into the plan,” Dave Ealey, spokesperson for Alberta Sustainable Resource Development.

“We would be the ones identifying if the ambient levels of water contaminants or air quality were exceeded or not and following up with direction to those parts of the industrial or residential sector that might have an impact on those water or air quality concentrations.”

Ealey said that there have been dozens of meetings between the government, stakeholders and first nations to conceive the LARP and that the process is on schedule and soon to be completed.

“Were hopeful that the 90-day period the minister identified when they released the draft plan being available for consultation would be met, so were looking at sometime in July to have the final plan prepared, laid before the legislature and provided to cabinet for approval.” 


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