Conservation group opposes oilsands mining project on northern Alberta wetland

The McClelland wetland hosts a unique pattern of peatland called a fen. (C. Wearmouth, courtesy of Alberta Wilderness Association - image credit)
The McClelland wetland hosts a unique pattern of peatland called a fen. (C. Wearmouth, courtesy of Alberta Wilderness Association - image credit)

An Alberta conservation group is raising concerns about the potential for environmental damage from an approved oilsands mining operation on an important wetland in northern Alberta

The Alberta Energy Regulator approved Suncor's plan for work in the McClelland Lake Wetland Complex last year. The project is part of the company's current Fort Hills oilsands operation.

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

The McClelland Lake area is about 90 kilometres north of Fort McMurray. Discussions and opposition about mining the area have been ongoing for decades.

The authorization letter does not note the size of the project, but oilsands work in the McClelland Lakeland area would have a footprint that impacts about half of the area's wetland, according to the 2002 approval for the project.

Suncor submitted an operational plan in 2021 to get approval for work in the complex. Part of that plan included a description of how the company would maintain the unmined portion of the wetland.

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

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

After reading the letter of authorization, Meintzer is concerned.

"We just don't think that it's possible to… have a mine in one half and say that there's going to be no impact to the other half," Meintzer said.

While the letter of authorization mentions monitoring the land for changes, Meintzer said that doesn't guarantee the land won't be impacted and by the time any issues are discovered, it may be too late.

"It's good to have triggers like that in place but this makes us concerned that they're anticipating the potential for harm."

Suncor spokesperson Leithan Slade said the plan includes a "detailed monitoring program to detect environmental changes in an effort to protect impacts on the surrounding watershed."

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

One of the features of the project is an underground wall that would be in place around 2037. The wall would be used to prevent groundwater from flowing toward the mine pit.

C. Wearmouth, courtesy of Alberta Wilderness Association
C. Wearmouth, courtesy of Alberta Wilderness Association

Meintzer said the area has environmental significance and needs to be protected.

"Peatlands are too important. They store and sequester carbon from the atmosphere," Meintzer said. "To destroy one ... Would be a huge loss."

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

"Just because the operational plan has been approved, that certainly doesn't mean that the engagement is over," Slade said.

"We certainly recognize that the McClelland Lake Wetland Complex has significant environmental, cultural and social features that are important to local Indigenous peoples."

Slade said that the Alberta Wilderness Association has been invited to participate in the committee, but declined.

According to the AWA's website, the group declined the offer because it believes it is a "means to legitimize the wetland complex's destruction."

Meintzer said the area is too ecologically important to risk harming. It contains a large patterned fen, and has a large natural waterbody which is important for birds in the area.

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

In an email to CBC, Teresa Broughton, communications officer for the AER, said the plan has a "rigorous framework around how the environmental conditions will be measured, assessed, and reported to the AER," and that the nearby peatland has "been given significant attention throughout the approval process."

Meintzer said the AWA has two independent experts reviewing Suncor's operational plan, and the results of that investigation will be made public near the end of the month.

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