EDMONTON — First Nations and environmental groups want the federal government to revisit its approval of British Columbia's Site C dam which they worry would threaten a national park that is a World Heritage Site.
Groups including the Mikisew Cree and the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society say the risk to Alberta's Wood Buffalo National Park from the dam and upstream oilsands development is so dire that they will ask UNESCO investigators to put the area on its list of threatened sites.
"Governments have continued to allow threat after threat," Mikisew Chief Steve Courtoreille said Monday. "The results of the impacts are really destroying our way of life."
Two UNESCO investigators have been in Alberta for the last week visiting the national park and talking to government, industry, aboriginal and scientific presenters. The investigators were invited to Canada by the federal government after the Mikisew contacted the agency in December and expressed concerns about the park, which has been a World Heritage site since 1983.
The park, Canada's largest at 45,000 square kilometres, is considered of global importance because of the size of its undisturbed wetlands and tracts of boreal forest. Its wildlife includes the world's only breeding whooping cranes and millions of other migratory birds.
However, concerns have been growing.
Scientists say the area's river delta, one of the largest in the world, is drying out since the construction of the Bennett Dam in 1968. Some fear Site C — a proposed hydro dam in the Peace River region — would make that worse, a concern that was not examined in B.C.'s environmental assessment.
The park is also downstream of the oilsands.
"We know now that those systems are leaking small amounts of contaminants and air-borne emissions are adding small amounts," said David Schindler, an ecologist who made a presentation to the UNESCO team last week.
Although the impact of those chemicals is debated, mercury has been found in bird eggs and some fish are under a consumption advisory.
Terry Abel of the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers, who also spoke to the investigators, said environmental monitoring has greatly increased in recent years.
"People are paying attention to that monitoring information," he said. "What we're seeing at this point, there's certainly not any adverse effects from the oilsands on Wood Buffalo National Park."
Investigators are expected to deliver their report to UNESCO in late November. The agency is to decide next summer whether to list the park as threatened.
The decision to send the two-person team specifically cites dams, oilsands development and proposed open-pit mining. It also notes a lack of engagement with First Nations.
George Green of Parks Canada, who accompanied the investigators, said that whether or not Wood Buffalo is listed as threatened, some recommendations for Canada are likely to come.
"It's not binding, but we take this very seriously," he said.
Some 55 of UNESCO's 1,052 World Heritage Sites are on the threatened list. Two sites have been officially delisted in the program's history.
Investigations are regular parts of UNESCO's work, said University of Montreal professor Christina Cameron, who has both studied and participated in the World Heritage Site process.
"It goes on all the time," said Cameron, who estimated there are anywhere between 150 and 200 such reports a year. "It's a wake-up call."
If problems are found, UNESCO tries to work with the local government to try to restore the site, she said. The agency has no enforcement power.
Courtoreille said Wood Buffalo is already so dry that his people can no longer trap or fish for a living. Streams and small rivers are impassable, closing large parts of Mikisew's traditional territory to traditional practices.
"We just don't go," he said. "We can't go."
— Follow Bob Weber on Twitter at @row1960
Bob Weber, The Canadian Press
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