Canada blocks NAFTA investigation into tar sands pollution

TRENTON - Canada has succeeded in lobbying against an investigation of its Alberta tar sands tailings ponds by a NAFTA environmental watchdog, according to reports Wednesday.

Representatives of Canada, the United States and Mexico chose to disregard the recommendations by staff of the Commission on Environmental Co-operation, or CEC, and Tuesday voted against the investigation.

The result of the unanimous vote, held behind closed doors, was not released until Wednesday.

Dale Marshall of Environmental Defence, one of the groups requesting the investigation, said earlier this month that he thought Canada was fighting the investigation because negative findings might impact the Keystone XL pipeline approval by the U.S.

"It's clear that President [Barack] Obama is looking at Canada's record when he is thinking about approving or not approving certain pipelines going through the U.S.," Marshall told the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation.

U.S. congressional approval is needed for the pipeline that would carry crude oil from Canada’s tar sands in Alberta to U.S. Gulf refineries. Proponents of the project say it will produce much needed jobs while opponents cite environmental concerns.

As well as the commission staff, two environmental groups and three private citizens urged the investigation because there is concern the polluted tailings, the leftover material from oil extraction, are leaking from the ponds into nearby rivers and creeks in the northern Canadian province.

If the toxic material were leaking into the water, it would violate the federal Fisheries Act.

“It’s disappointing,” Marshall told the CBC. “It shows that the Canadian government is willing to circumvent institutions that make sure Canada upholds environmental laws.”

It also marks the third time in a year that Canada has successfully prevented a look into its environmental conduct by the North American Free Trade Agreement watchdog.

Backed by Mexico, the government blocked scrutiny into polar bear protection and British Columbia salmon farms.

Last August, the CEC decided there was enough evidence to proceed with an investigation into the tailings ponds.

But the government said commission rules forbade investigation of any issue before the courts and a man in the home city of the tar sands, Ft. McMurray, filed legal action regarding the possible leaking of the ponds.

Even though the case was no longer in court as of February 2014, Canada argued that CEC staff did not have the power to decide if the case was active or relevant, the Canadian Press reported.

“Accordingly, the secretariat should have proceeded no further in its analysis and terminated the submission,” the three-member council that oversees the CEC said in a written statement.

That may or may not be the end of the matter, Marshall said.

“It’s possible we could go to the commission again,” he said. “But it’s clear the Canadian government is not going to be transparent. It doesn’t care if the tailings ponds are leaking toxic chemicals into fresh water,” he said.

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