Federal, Alberta governments to study public notice process around oilsands tailings leak

The Alberta and federal governments say they will work together to understand what happened around public notifications of toxic seepage at an oilsands tailings pond.

Environment ministers, area First Nations not updated after discovery

orange brown water on a snowy landscape.
Orange brown industrial wastewater has been seeping out of an oilsands tailing pond since May. Now, the Alberta and federal governments say they will work together to study the public notification process. (Nick Vardy for Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation)

The Alberta and federal governments say they will work together to understand what happened around a nine-month delay in notifying the public about toxic seepage from an oilsands tailings pond.

Alberta Environment Minister Sonya Savage and federal Environment Minister Steven Guilbeault "reiterated a dual commitment to review information exchange processes and committed to maintaining open communication channels with Indigenous communities in the area with updates on water sampling and other monitoring results," said a news release from the Alberta government on Wednesday.

The provincial and federal governments have committed to sharing test results from their separate environmental monitoring efforts, Savage said on her way into the legislature on Wednesday.

"I think the more testing, the better," Savage said.

She also said her ministry sent its own water inspectors last week to the Kearl oilsands mine area, near Fort McKay in northeastern Alberta.

The province had thus far been relying on water quality testing done by the arm's-length Alberta Energy Regulator (AER).

"I think multiple testing gives public confidence and public assurance that the water is safe," Savage said. "That the water has not entered waterways."

'Failures of communication'

On Tuesday evening, Savage and Guilbeault discussed seepage and a leak from Imperial Oil's Kearl mine, which is about 70 kilometres north of Fort McMurray, Alta.

The seepage was discovered in May, but neither politician was told about it until nine months later. They learned of it from an environmental protection order issued by the AER after a second release of 5.3 million litres of oilsands wastewater at Kearl from a catchment pond. 

"Minister Guilbeault underlined that Imperial Oil's own stated failures of communication were unacceptable and have raised broader concerns regarding the efficacy of [Alberta's] existing notification systems," said Kaitlin Power, Guilbeault's spokesperson.

Area First Nations have also said they were not updated after initial notification of discoloured water found on the site.

Savage has repeatedly promised to get to the bottom of how it took so long for news of the significant leaks to be released.

In a separate news release on Wednesday, Guilbeault said Environment and Climate Change Canada enforcement officers have told Imperial Oil it must take immediate action to stop the seepage to prevent it from entering a nearby waterbody and potentially harming fish.

Imperial said in a news release Wednesday that progress is being made in seepage mitigation and that the company is "nearing completion of cleanup from drainage pond overflow at Kearl."

"Based on our monitoring, released fluids did not enter any waterways and our water sampling continues to show there has been no impacts to local drinking water sources," states the news release. "There is no indication of impact to wildlife. Imperial continues to work closely with the Alberta Energy Regulator on the cleanup."

The company says it extended invitations to neighbouring communities to visit the site, and also offered them opportunity to do independent monitoring and water testing.

Tailings harmful to fish: Environment Canada

Savage also said on Wednesday that she and Guilbeault have agreed to accelerate steps to remediate toxic tailings ponds in northern Alberta. Savage said that does not entail a financial commitment. She said polluters should pay for their own cleanup. 

Companies must store water that is used to separate oil from sands because it contains toxins, salt and other residue.

There are an estimated 1.4 trillion litres of wastewater in the ponds near Alberta's oilsands mines, enough to fill 560,000 Olympic-sized swimming pools.

The federal government is also studying whether companies could release treated tailings water into the surrounding environment — a practice that is not currently allowed.

Although Savage maintained that no test results have indicated the leaked material has entered waterways, Environment Canada has said the released tailings are harmful to fish.

In a statement sent Wednesday, Mikisew Cree First Nation Chief Billy-Joe Tuccaro said the Environment Canada finding casts doubt on the statements from Imperial and the provincial government. 

"It's easy to say there's no impact on wildlife when no one has looked for it," he said. "But we've seen moose on the site, and know it's too soon for Alberta or Imperial to have done the work to look for the impact to wildlife."

Tuccaro said Mikisew Cree First Nation will not drink or bathe in the water or eat fish from nearby waterways until they have proof it is safe.

"We have lost all trust," he said.

Imperial's news release states that the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo's test results of water from the Fort Chipewyan Water Treatment Plant show the water is "safe, potable and meets all Canadian drinking water standards and requirements." Imperial said in the release that it is providing drinking water to communities who have requested it "for emergency back-up purposes."

Alberta NDP Indigenous relations critic Richard Feehan said Wednesday the Alberta government shouldn't have said officials were confident there was no environmental harm until the province had performed its own testing.

"Now they're suddenly admitting they don't have the evidence to make any declarative statements, so they're going to have to backtrack," Feehan said.

The lack of information about the leaks also signals something is wrong inside AER, Feehan said.

Power, Guilbeault's press secretary, said Ottawa also wants to see a federal-provincial-Indigenous working group, with participation from the oil companies, to address the immediate concerns around the Kearl releases "to restore trust and give transparency."

Details on that group are expected soon.

With files from Michelle Bellefontaine


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