People who haven’t been able to drink from their wells for weeks because of a potential chemical leak at a gas plant near Edson, Alta., are now raising questions about the system that was set up to protect them.

Alberta Health Services advised residents in 80 homes near the South Rosevear gas plant in March not to drink their water after a monitoring well tested high for sulfolane, a chemical used to remove compounds from sour gas.

CBC News has now learned that both Suncor, the company that previously owned the plant, and the provincial government knew about a potential spill of the same chemical five years earlier and didn't tell nearby residents.  

When CBC first questioned Alberta Environment and Sustainable Resource Development (ESRD) about reports that sulfolane had been found in the groundwater on the same gas plant site in 2008, spokeswoman Katrina Bluetchen said the government was not told about that leak until 2012.

She said annual groundwater monitoring reports from the plant between 2006 to 2011 were filed altogether in 2012.

Companies are required to submit those reports each year.

Bluetchen said that because subsequent reports did not show higher-than-threshold levels of sulfolane in the gas plant monitoring well, no further action from government was needed.

Since CBC’s initial report, ESRD says it has now found all the annual reporting from the gas plant filed since 2006.

“Since our conversation on Tuesday, some new information has come to light that I would like to share with you,” Bluetchen wrote in an email to CBC News after an earlier report described residents’ worries.

Bluetchen confirmed the government knew in 2009 that Suncor, which owned the plant at that time, found  sulfolane in the groundwater in 2008.

However, she points a finger at the company for not reporting it sooner.

Duty to report

“If a company detects a level above the threshold or approval limit, they report it to the Director (ESRD) through the 24-hour Environmental Hotline,” she wrote. “This appears not to have occurred in 2008 and is something we will be taking a closer look at.”

No fines or sanctions have been launched against Suncor in relation to that incident.

Sec. 110 of Alberta’s Environmental Protection and Enhancement Act says a “person who releases or causes or permits the release of a substance into the environment that may cause, is causing or has caused an adverse effect shall, as soon as that person knows or ought to know of the release, report it to ... the Director.”

The company, which sold the plant in 2010, says it did the right thing.

“In October 2008, we detected a groundwater exceedance of sulfolane in an onsite monitoring well. We reported this through our annual groundwater monitoring report as per ESRD’s normal reporting process,” wrote a company representative.

“Our approach was consistent with our interpretation of the regulatory requirement and we did not receive any notice that we were non-compliant with this approach.”

'I have my doubts'

CBC News spoke to several residents in the area who said they are relatively happy with the way the plant’s current owner, Bonavista, has handled the situation, but now have questions about the regulation process.

Roel Bangma

Roel Bangma owns a family farm near the gas plant. He worries about how his 250 cattle may be affected. (Scott Findlay/CBC)

Bonavista reported a level of 5.0 mg/L of sulfolane (125 times the safe amount recommended by Health Canada guidelines for drinking water) found in groundwater at monitoring well in March 2014. The company is now supplying homes and agriculture producers with alternate water sources and organized an information night for residents.

But many who live in the area wonder why they weren’t told about the earlier leak.

“It’s a concern that there was an earlier leak and the government knew,” said Lynnette Klut, who can see the plant’s smoke stacks from her kitchen window.

“At least now it’s come out and they can deal with it.”

Down the road, a dairy farmer who relied on spring water to feed to his 250 head of cattle says he hopes they deal with it soon.

“I have my doubts about what they know and what they don't tell us," said Roel Bangma.

His wells have tested negative for sulfolane, but he says he won’t drink the water until investigators find out where the chemical came from and tell him where it went.

“It is worrying me because it has to do with my business, it has to do with my family, and it has to do with my health too — and everybody's health."

A new arm’s length overseer, the Alberta Energy Regulator (AER), has now taken over the file and is investigating.

AER says it cannot comment while the investigation is ongoing.