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First Nation slams Premier Danielle Smith for ‘spin’ on huge oilsands project leak: ‘This is basic science’

March 8, 2023

A project in northern Alberta is under scrutiny after a First Nation raised alarm over a leak that it claims the province and Imperial Oil tried to hide.

Toronto Star: EDMONTON—A First Nation in northern Alberta has slammed Premier Danielle Smith for downplaying a massive toxic spill from an oilsands tailings pond that the community is calling an environmental disaster.

Smith stood in front of reporters Monday and assured Albertans that no wildlife or drinking water had been affected by the Kearl Lake tailings pond leakage. Smith also demanded “radical transparency” from Calgary-based Imperial Oil, the company responsible, amid criticism of what she deemed a poor communications plan from the company when it comes to notifying stakeholders of potentially dangerous spills.

“A lot of the problems that companies get into is that they allow for an issue to get out in the media with incorrect information, and then they’re trying to … correct misinformation,” said Smith.

Smith suggested that media reported the misinformation that drinking water had been affected.

But Chief Allan Adam of the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation said in a statement Wednesday that the premier’s comments appear to shrug off “basic science.” “The truth is that 5.3 (million) litres of process-affected water spilled across a forested area,” said Adam. “The volume of this water was such that it can be seen seeping up from under the ground and pooling on the surface. Water drains through the earth into groundwater and eventually drains into tributaries and other bodies of water. This is basic science.”

Photos show why the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation is concerned about massive amounts of leakage from a nearby oilsands project.

He said the premier was minimizing the problem and that it was time for Smith to practise some “radical transparency” herself.

“This is much more than a simple communications issue,” he said. “This is an environmental catastrophe that the (Alberta Energy Regulator) and Imperial Oil tried to cover up and now the premier and the minister are trying to minimize. “Our community and the public expect that there will be accountability from Imperial, AER and other regulators. Right now all we are getting from the premier is spin.”

In an interview with the Star, Adam said the company had agreed to let the First Nation send its own monitors into the area to run tests. Adam will visit the site later this week, he said. 

Becca Polak, the premier’s press secretary, said in an emailed statement that Smith was briefed twice on the issue by the AER and that the regulator “confirmed that existing protocols were followed, remediation is underway, no impacts to wildlife have been reported and no contaminated water has entered into the waterways or affected human health or wildlife.

“Active water sampling of the waterways near the site is ongoing. At this time, the regulator has informed us that there have been no impacts to waterways or wildlife,” said Polak. “As the premier has stated, there is always room for continuous improvement around information sharing and monitoring.”

It was reported last week that the Kearl Lake oilsands facility in northern Alberta had seen two leaks in the past year — including one that Adam said wasn’t revealed for months. The First Nation recently told its members not to eat any food harvested from the area after May 2022.

A photo shows the First Nation's concern over the leak.

Attached to the ACFN statement on Wednesday were aerial photos of the spill zone appearing to show moose near the leakage along with photos of animal tracks close to a piece of Crown land near the Imperial site. The ACFN also stated that animals could roam freely through the affected area.

The statement said that the First Nation met with the Alberta Energy Regulator this week to discuss the issue. “The AER apologized for failing to notify ACFN of the multiple failures that have occurred over the past 9 months at the facility, and acknowledged that regulators don’t know the full extent of the environmental threats posed by the spills,” it said.

Last May, an unknown amount of seepage from an oilsands tailings pond was reported to the Alberta Energy Regulator. Such seepage has high levels of iron, arsenic and sulphates, among other potentially toxic substances.

In a subsequent incident on Jan. 31 of this year, a 5.3-million-litre leak of wastewater from a Kearl tailings pond was also reported to the regulator.

On Feb. 6, the AER posted an enforcement order regarding the spill, and Adam said this order included information about the May 2022 spill that he’d not heard about until then. It noted that a body of water was close to the leakage. Adam said there were fish in there and that this also should have been flagged publicly.

In a statement earlier this week, Imperial apologized for the incident and said it fell short in communicating with the community.

Kieran Leavitt is an Edmonton-based political reporter for the Toronto Star. Follow him on Twitter: @kieranleavitt