A conservation group opposes an oil sands wetland mining project in northern Alberta

An Alberta conservation group is raising concerns about potential environmental harm from an approved oil sands mining operation in a critical wetland in northern Alberta.

Alberta’s energy regulator approved Suncor’s plan to operate in the McClelland Lake Wetland complex last year. The project is part of Fort Hills Oilands’ existing corporate operation.

The AER’s authorization letter, issued in September, outlines approval of the operational plan, with conditions that include a guarantee that the project must comply with the terms of the Water Act.

The McClelland Lake District is located about 90 kilometers north of Fort McMurray. Debates about mining the area – and opposition to it – have been going on for decades.

The authorization letter does not indicate the size of the project, but the McClelland Lakeland oil sands work will have an impact affecting about half of the area’s wetlands, according to the 2002 approval of the project.

Suncor submitted an operational plan in 2021 to gain approval to operate on the complex. Part of that plan included a description of how the company would retain a portion of the unmined wetlands.

One of the features of the project is the construction of an underground wall around the year 2037. The wall will be used to prevent groundwater from flowing towards the mine shaft.

The Alberta Wilderness Association (AWA) has concerns about the project and its potential impact on nearby wetlands.

Phillip Meintzer, a conservation specialist with the AWA, had been trying to get a copy of the authorization letter for the McClelland Lakeland project for about two months before he finally got one last week.

After reading the authorization letter, Meintzer becomes concerned.

“We don’t think it’s possible … to have a mine in one half and say there will be no impact on the other half,” Mintzer said.

While the mandate letter refers to monitoring the ground for changes, Meintzer said this does not guarantee that the ground will not be affected and by the time any problems are discovered it may be too late.

“It’s nice to have triggers like this but it makes us worry that they anticipate the potential for harm.”

Suncor spokesman Lethan Slade said the plan includes “a detailed monitoring program to detect environmental changes in an effort to prevent impacts on surrounding watersheds.”

The area has been monitored since 2000, and there is detailed information on surface and groundwater levels, water quality, flora and wildlife.

A man poses for a profile picture.  He is standing outside in snowy conditions.
Philip Mincer, a conservation specialist with the Alberta Wildlife Society, said the organization still has concerns about the environmental health of the nearby wetlands. (C. Wearmouth, Submitted by the Alberta Wilderness Society)

Mintzer said the area has ecological significance and needs protection.

“Peatlands are very important, they store and sequester carbon from the atmosphere,” said Mintzer. “Destroying one… would be a huge loss.”

Slade said there is an advisory committee for the project to ensure wetlands are protected during mining operations and the company will continue to work with stakeholders.

“Just because the executive plan has been approved, it certainly doesn’t mean the engagement is over,” Slade said.

“We certainly recognize that the Lake McClelland Wetland Complex has important ecological, cultural and social characteristics for the local Indigenous people.”

Slade said the Alberta Wildlife Society was invited to participate in the committee, but declined.

to me AWA websiteThe group rejected the offer because they believed it was “a way to legitimize the destruction of the wetland complex.”

Mintzer said the area is too ecologically important to risk harm. It contains large ornate art, and has a large natural body of water, which is important to birds in the area.

Slade said the company has moved infrastructure away from wetlands, made modifications to improve reclamation, improved monitoring software and improved modeling to predict the impacts of mine development.

In an email to the CBC, Teresa Broughton, AER’s communications officer, said the plan has “a strict framework about how environmental conditions are measured, assessed, and reported to the AER,” and that nearby peatland was given “extreme consideration throughout the approval process.”

The AWA has two independent experts reviewing Suncor’s operating plan, Mintzer said, and will announce the results of that investigation near the end of the month.

The AER said the delay in obtaining the AWA letter of authorization was due to a minor administrative error and that the documents are available upon request, but are not routinely posted on the AER website.

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