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Federal environment minister condemns delayed reporting of oilsands tailings leak

March 9, 2023

‘Our systems are failing Indigenous peoples, clearly,’ Steven Guilbeault says

Steven Guilbeault said Thursday it is “very worrisome” that for more than half a year, the Alberta Energy Regulator didn’t tell Environment and Climate Change Canada or nearby First Nations about a tailings leak from an oilsands mine. (Chad Hipolito/The Canadian Press)

CBC News: Federal Environment Minister Steven Guilbeault says Alberta’s silence about an oilsands tailing leak is a troubling failure that suggests the province needs more regulatory oversight.

The release of at least 5.3 million litres of toxic tailings from Imperial Oil’s Kearl mine should have been reported to Ottawa by the Alberta Energy Regulator within 24 hours, Guilbeault told reporters in Ottawa Thursday. “It is very worrisome that, for over half a year, the Alberta regulator did not communicate with Environment and Climate Change Canada, nor did they communicate with the Indigenous nations,” he said

“When I say we need to to find better mechanisms, that’s that’s what I’m talking about.” Guilbeault said he has spoken with members of the Mikisew Cree First Nation and the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation to discuss their concerns over environmental contamination. 

Imperial has maintained that the releases were contained and posed no threat to water or wildlife. Environment Canada continues to investigate the ongoing leak. “Our systems are failing Indigenous peoples, clearly. And we need to find solutions,” Guilbeault said.

Last May, Imperial discovered brown sludge outside the boundaries of a tailings pond at its Kearl mine, 570 kilometres northeast of Edmonton near Fort McKay. Over the summer, the sludge was found to be tailings seeping from the pond containing high levels of toxins such as arsenic.    

Neither local First Nations, the federal government, nor other jurisdictions that share the watershed such as the Northwest Territories were informed of the seepage or kept updated. It wasn’t until Feb. 7 that the Alberta Energy Regulator publicly released an environmental protection order — after another 5.3 million litres of tailings at Kearl escaped from a catchment pond.

The company told Alberta officials about the initial finding but didn’t release further information until February, by which time another 5.3 million litres of tailings escaped from a containment pond.

Environment Canada said it learned about the releases Feb. 7, the same day the Alberta Energy Regulator released an environmental protection order to the public. Speaking to reporters on Thursday, Alberta Environment Minister Sonya Savage said she also learned about the releases on Feb. 7. Savage said the provincial government is taking a step back, looking at the different processes, seeing if they were followed and “fixing the whole process” around improving notification and monitoring.

We can’t investigate what we don’t know.-Steven Guilbeault

Guilbeault said it’s unclear if a lack of reporting is a broader problem within Alberta’s regulatory framework.

“We can’t investigate what we don’t know,” he said. “There are many problems with this, but we can’t send enforcement officers to do water sampling if we don’t know that there’s a leak, and if we’re not notified as per our agreement that we have to be notified within 24 hours.” 

A woman with brown hair, wearing a dark blue dress and pearls, speaks into a microphone. She is seated at a podium.
First Nations leaders say Alberta Premier Danielle Smith is minimizing the effects of two releases of oilsands tailings water near lands they harvest from. (Spencer Colby/The Canadian Press)

First Nations leaders have accused Alberta Premier Danielle Smith of minimizing the effect of the releases. Earlier this week, Smith said the incidents had no effect on local waterways or wildlife. She also blamed Imperial for slow communications on the releases, which she said resulted in the spread of misinformation.

Environment and Climate Change Canada has confirmed the Alberta government didn’t pass along news of the spill. The federal agency, which is investigating the spill, released a timeline Wednesday saying the department first learned of the releases from First Nations. “I don’t really know why she would say that,” Chief Billy Joe Tuccaro of the Mikisew Cree First Nation said Wednesday. The First Nation is downstream of the releases. Its members also harvest on land adjacent to them.

“I truly believe it’s too early to be definite. [Smith’s] comments are very concerning.”

Chief Allan Adam of the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation said the releases — which contain toxic levels of contaminants, such as arsenic — are much more than a communications issue. “This is an environmental catastrophe that the [Alberta Energy Regulator] and Imperial Oil tried to cover up and now the premier and [Environment Minister Sonya Savage] are trying to minimize,” he stated in a news release Wednesday.

Smith’s office did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Tuccaro and Adam are angry their people harvested for nine months from nearby lands without being kept informed. “The trust has been broken,” said Tuccaro.

Water contamination concerns

Imperial is allowing environmental monitors from Mikisew on the release site to do their own measurements, he said. Tuccaro said the band wants that arrangement to be made permanent and not just on the Kearl site, but on all oilsands leases. “I’m not looking for a Band-Aid fix for them to allow us on for a couple months,” he said. “I’m asking for the life of the project.”

Tuccaro said Imperial executives have promised to visit the community of Fort Chipewyan later this month to discuss the situation. “We have invited community leaders to tour the site and are working directly with those communities on related requests,” said Imperial Oil spokesperson Lisa Schmidt. “We have also shared our mitigation and monitoring plans with communities and have asked for input on these plans.”

A mine surrounded by forest can be seen in the distance.
The Kearl Lake mine, run by Imperial Oil, has had two tailings pond leaks in the last nine months. Although the company says no toxins reached waterways, critics say the company and the government had an obligation to tell nearby communities and the Northwest Territories downstream. (Alberta Innovates)

The Northwest Territories government has said Alberta’s failure to notify it of the spills violated a bilateral agreement on the watershed shared by the two jurisdictions.

Savage said the government didn’t inform the Northwest Territories government earlier because under the bilateral agreement, notification is only required if there is evidence of ecological impact. “Our evidence said that nothing reached the waterways, so our officials interpreted that we didn’t need to give notification,” she said.

Tuccaro was also scheduled to speak with Guilbeault. Tuccaro said he would be asking for immediate help, including assurances that his community has adequate water supplies.

The Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo has stopped drawing water from the Athabasca River, forcing Fort Chipewyan to rely on limited supplies from its reservoir. In a release, Adam said there’s plenty of evidence to suggest the tailings have entered local groundwater and waterways.

Wallis SnowdonBob Weber ·