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Development on a LARP

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Issue: 78 Section: Environment Geography: West Alberta

July 29, 2011

Development on a LARP

Coalition speaks out on Northern Alberta land use plan

by Trevor Kehoe

Alberta's boreal desert: the tar sands. Photo: Luc Bourgeois, © lucbourgeoisphoto.org.

VANCOUVER—First Nations groups, scientists, lawyers and scholars are speaking out against the government of Alberta’s draft Lower Athabasca Regional Plan (LARP). Critics say LARP fails to address First Nations rights and the worsening environmental and health concerns for communities impacted by the tar sands.

“There’s very little accommodation to the rights of First Nations [in LARP],” says Monique Passelac-Ross of the Canadian Institute of Resource Law, at the University of Calgary, a vocal critic of LARP's consultation process. “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.”

As if in allegiance to the tar sands gigaproject, a convoy of trucks drives out of the mines near Fort McMurray. Photo: Luc Bourgeois, © lucbourgeoisphoto.org.

According to the Alberta government, LARP will identify and set resources and environmental management outcomes for air, land, water and biodiversity and guide future resource decisions while considering social and economic impacts. Some are concerned the LARP consultation is superficial, however, and serves as a formula for the government to increase expansion and development in northern Alberta without dealing with the environmental and social impacts of the tar sands.

“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,” says Passelac-Ross. “Information just goes into a ‘black box’ and that has led the First Nations to the situation where they may go to court to force the government to listen.”

Local First Nations have had concerns with environmental impacts, land use planning and the future of the largest energy extraction project on earth since the 1990’s.

“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,” says Mikisew Cree First Nation Chief Roxanne Marcel.

She notes that she is not against development in the area, but wants to see a plan in place for the project to move forward without a negative impact.

“Were not opposing the oilsands, we’re 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.”

But Dave Ealey, who is a spokesperson for the Alberta government's Sustainable Resource Development program, believes the concerns of First Nations are addressed in the plan.

“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,” he said. “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.”

More recently world-renowned scientists have begun speaking out on the impacts of tar sands operations are having on communities and the environment.

In 2007 water ecologist Kevin Timoney published a study with the Treeline Ecological Research institute noting serious water contamination issues adversely effecting populations downstream from tar sands 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 tar sands production expected to double over the next 10 years, provincial changes that take into account the concerns of local communities now could play a huge role in the future outlook of these communities.

Recommendations on environmental issues have been coming from respected scientists and 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.

As LARP proceeds, over 30 proposed tar sands surface mines, in-situ extraction and refinery upgrades are currently on the table to be approved by Alberta’s National Energy Board.

Although Ealey is confident that the LARP process will handle all concerns on the table Marcel is not so sure.

“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,” said Marcel. “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.”

The final plan is expected to be finished, presented to the Alberta legislature, and provided to cabinet for approval sometime in August.

Trevor Kehoe is a journalist and photographer originally from Calgary, Alberta who is now based in Vancouver, B.C. He freelances for a number of online and print publications and blogs at Common Interest.

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