Alberta First Nation angry at Imperial's silence while tailings pond leaked for 9 months
Band members have been harvesting food from land adjacent to the spills, chief says
A northern Alberta Indigenous leader has accused Imperial Oil Ltd. of a nine-month coverup over a massive release of toxic oilsands tailings on land near where his band harvests food.
Chief Allan Adam of the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation said Thursday that Imperial executives had several chances to tell him in person about the leak after it was discovered in May 2022.
He learned about it after the province's energy regulator issued an environmental protection order on Feb. 6.
"During that nine-month period, ACFN had many meetings with them, including a sit-down, face-to-face between myself and the vice-president in November," Adam told reporters Thursday. "Each meeting was an opportunity where they could have come clean, but they chose to hide the fact from us over and over again."
Imperial expressed regret over the communication and said it won't happen again.
"We have expressed to (Chief Adam) directly our regret that our communications did not meet the expectations of the (Athabasca Chipewyan) community," said a Thursday statement from Jamie Long, Imperial's vice-president of mining.
"We further committed to him that we are taking the necessary steps to improve our communications so this does not happen again in the future."
One of Alberta's largest spills
Imperial employees first reported in May that seepage was escaping from a tailings pond and making its way to the surface. The company confirmed the seepage was tailings wastewater that made its way through a fill layer.
The unknown quantity of wastewater exceeds federal and provincial guidelines for iron, arsenic, sulphates and hydrocarbons that could include kerosene, creosote and diesel. The seepage has continued.
In addition, 5.3 million litres of water escaped from a catchment meant to capture escaped tailings. That makes it, on its own, one of the largest spills in Alberta history.
The tailings leaked onto muskeg and forest as well as a small lake and tributaries of the Firebag and Muskeg rivers.
"How many more tailings leaks are taking place right now?" Allan asked.
No public notification was made of the two releases until the Alberta Energy Regulator issued the environmental protection order. By then, says Adam, his people had been sharing and eating food harvested from adjacent lands for months.
"We have land users in the area that hunt and fish animals that could have been exposed to these deadly toxins. We have been eating them for months unaware of the potential danger."
Imperial has said there have been no impacts on water or wildlife as a result of the releases.
Band members have photographed moose tracks going through the affected area. People have been told not to consume wildlife from the area, and the community of Fort Chipewyan has diverted its water source from the Athabasca River to a reservoir.
Ripples of frustration
Adam's frustration with the absence of communication was echoed Thursday by the N.W.T. government and an Indigenous-led organization focused on climate change.
Shane Thompson, N.W.T.'s environment minister, said his government got the news secondhand from an Indigenous organization, which he said breaks a bilateral agreement it has with Alberta.
In addition to instituting additional water monitoring along the Slave River, he wants a meeting with his Alberta counterpart Sonya Savage.
"This lack of transparency and information sharing from our Alberta partners is not an isolated incident, which increases our frustration in this matter," Thompson said in a statement.
Members of the group Indigenous Climate Action (ICA) pointed their frustration at the Alberta Energy Regulator, a high-profile public agency with a mandate to govern resource development. It is funded through administrative levies charged to industry.
"They did nothing to sound an alarm and warn communities downstream," said ICA associate director Sheila Muxlow, who called the inaction was negligent and irresponsible.
In a statement, the regulator said notifying affected people about releases isn't its job.
"It is the licensee's responsibility to report fluid releases to affected or potentially affected parties as soon as they become aware of the release," it said, adding an investigation has been launched.
'Regret these incidents'
In a statement, Long said Imperial values its relationships with local communities.
"We regret these incidents and are making every effort to learn from them and prevent them from happening again," he said.
Imperial has installed extra monitoring and pumping wells to control the seepage. Trees and topsoil in the area have been stripped. It said further water catchment areas will be built.
Enforcement officers from Environment and Climate Change Canada have been on-site.
The risk of a tailings leak was pointed out in the mine's original environmental assessment. The Joint Panel Review that assessed Kearl noted the "tailings pond was sited in an area that had very permeable deposits."
In 2014, published research from federal scientists confirmed oilsands process-affected water had reached groundwater and was probably leaching into the Athabasca River. At the time, the Alberta government said the research was of interest but didn't confirm anything.
In 2020, a group reporting to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization said there was "scientifically valid evidence" the tailings ponds were contaminating groundwater. The government said it was reviewing the report but didn't find the evidence conclusive.