How long can an industry and a government completely disregard a nation’s laws that are intended to protect that country’s citizens? That’s the question that continues to be asked about tar sands companies and the Canadian government, when it comes to the tailings ponds leaking toxic waste into rivers in northern Alberta.

I asked myself that question again last week, when the Commission on Environmental Cooperation (CEC) ruled that there was plenty of evidence that tar sands companies were breaking Canadian law and lots of evidence that the Canadian government was failing to do anything about it.

What’s the CEC? It’s the environmental arm of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and it ensures that the three signatory NAFTA countries uphold their laws that protect the environment. The CEC is using that mandate to undertake a deeper investigation into the leaking tailings lakes in Canada.

The evidence cited by the CEC was pretty compelling. First, it’s clear that the federal government has known for at least a decade that the tailings ponds are leaking. The term, tailings ponds, refers to the large pits where the tar sands industry puts its liquid waste and where that waste is supposed to stay. Pond is a bit of a misnomer. The tailings are so big that they can be seen from space.

And, since 2004, reports from the National Energy Board, memos to the Environment Minister from his deputy minister, presentations to Parliament from Environment Canada, and numerous academic studies have alerted the government that the tailings lakes are not doing what they’re supposed to be doing. Instead of holding the waste, the tailings are releasing millions of litres of toxic liquid every day. Tar sands companies have even told Environment Canada about the leakage.

Second, the CEC highlighted the evidence that the federal government has done nothing to address this violation of Canada’s Fisheries Act. The Fisheries Act prohibits companies from putting toxic chemicals—the Act calls them “deleterious substances”—into lakes and rivers and other water bodies that have fish. Environment Canada is responsible for enforcing this section of the law. The CEC points to reports from Canada’s environment commissioner that have found that Environment Canada has not developed a strategy on how it would enforce the law, something that would normally be standard practice. For instance, Environment Canada has developed enforcement strategies for pollution laws related to the pulp and paper industry and mining companies, but not for the tar sands.

The Canadian government’s reaction to the CEC’s investigation was unfortunate and alarming. Instead of addressing the issue, maybe by explaining how it was enforcing Canada’s pollution laws or, at worst, telling Canadians what it would do to start enforcing those laws, the government tried to undermine the CEC, arguing that the CEC had no mandate to investigate this issue. This despite the fact that more than 80 cases have come before the Commission and so it has frequently had to make similar decisions and take on the same kind of investigations.

Once again, the federal government is making the mistake of thinking the public interest is perfectly aligned with the industry’s interest. Any requirement—even one of Canada’s own laws—that would slow down tar sands projects or force the industry to act responsibly is avoided, ignored or attacked.

It seems like once government decides to become an advocate for an industry—another round of million dollar ads bought and paid for by the federal government has just started airing on TV—then it’s a lot harder to move back to government’s expected and required role, doing what’s best for the country by making sure toxins don’t end up in Canada’s rivers or in the bodies of people who drink their water and eat their fish.

Thankfully, the CEC has decided to press forward with a deeper investigation into the government’s failure to enforce our environmental laws. We can only hope that Canadians will get to see the findings since the federal government may continue to try to block the investigation or its release to the public. Environmental Defence will continue to follow the process and let Canadians know the results.