NAFTA environmental body questions Canada's enforcement of environmental law

Canada's oil sands industry is being threatened with a collection of facts.

This week, the North American Free Trade Agreement's (NAFTA) environmental branch asked Ottawa to address allegations that it is failing to enforce environmental laws related to waste water leakage from oil sands operations in Alberta.

The Commission for Environmental Cooperation (CEC) – an intergovernmental organization between Canada, Mexico and the US – has given the Federal government 60 days to respond to the claims, at which point the CEC will decide whether to create a 'factual record.'

A factual record is nothing more than a collection of facts. According to the CEC guidelines, its purpose is to provide an "objective presentation of the facts" and to allow the reader of the record to "draw their own conclusions." It is not meant to draw any conclusions or make any recommendations.

The allegations stem from a submission filed with the CEC in 2010 by two non-governmental organizations – Environmental Defence Canada and the Natural resources Defense Council – and three individuals.

The group claims that the government of Canada has not been properly enforcing the section of the Fisheries Act which deals with pollution prevention and establishes a prohibition against depositing harmful substances into water bodies inhabited by fish.

While exemptions to this law have been granted to the pulp paper and petroleum refining industries, the group agues that no such exemption has been granted to the oil sands mining industry and their tailings ponds. They also assert that the waste water has contaminated groundwater and in some cases surface waters.

Although the CEC may not have the power compel governments or companies to act, a 'factual record' could have some important consequences for the oil sands industry. Currently the Canadian government is pushing hard for US approval of the proposed Keystone XL pipeline which would carry Alberta's crude to the southern US. The Obama administration has been withholding consent due to environmental concerns.

Gillian McEachern with the Environmental Defence told the Canadian Press that the CEC decision "casts doubt on Canada's ability to manage the environmental impacts of the oil sands."