The Alberta government waited a month before calling an emergency response to one of the biggest releases of oilsands tailings in the province’s history, a leaked document shows.
The document, obtained by The Canadian Press, shows the province didn’t initiate an emergency response until after First Nations chiefs in the area went public about how they were informed of the releases from Imperial Oil’s Kearl mine, about 70 kilometres north of Fort McMurray, Alta.
The document also sheds new light on official communications and reaction to the spills, now the subject of three inquiries.
“The fact that the province waited over a month before initiating its emergency response is not surprising at all,” said Chief Alan Adam of the Athabasca Cree First Nation, which uses the area for harvesting. “We are used to the provincial government letting us down.”
Discoloured water, later found to be groundwater contaminated with oilsands tailings, was discovered seeping from a Kearl pond in May. First Nations were not kept informed of that investigation until Feb. 7, when the Alberta Energy Regulator issued an environmental protection order against Imperial after the another release of 5.3 million litres of tailings from a containment pond.
That order was made public and reported on. Alberta Environment Minister Sonya Savage has said the protection order was how she first learned of the problem.
The releases drew more attention on March 2, when chiefs of area First Nations said they had not been updated since the original notification, while their people continued to hunt, fish and gather plants in the area. Both Adam and Chief Billy-Jo Tuccaro of the Mikisew Cree First Nation said they’d lost trust in the regulator.
Five days later, on March 7, Alberta Environment began an emergency response to the spill, which contained toxic levels of contaminants including arsenic. It took another three days before provincial emergency response staff made it to the site.
That’s what a March 23 document from Alberta Environment and Protected Areas entitled “Kearl Oil Sands — AEPA Response Summary and Drinking Water Evaluation” indicates. The dates are revealed in a timeline of the department’s response.
Alberta Environment did not respond to a question about why it took a month to declare an emergency and then only after national media attention.
Alan said it’s part of a pattern of indifference.
He said his band hasn’t heard from either of the United Conservative Party government members who represent the area, even though both hold relevant posts. Tany Yao is parliamentary secretary for rural health and Brian Jean is minister of jobs, economy and northern development.
“You’d think this would be right up their alley,” said Alan in a statement. “Maybe there’s a bigger crisis happening in our region that I don’t know about that they’re focused on instead.”
Opposition New Democrat environment critic Marlin Schmidt said he wondered what triggered the emergency decision.
“When (the releases) first hit the press in February, all we heard from the minister, the regulator and Imperial Oil was that everything was fine and under control. A month later, we’ve got an emergency response.
“What triggered the emergency response?”
The document offers data on a long list of potential contaminants measured at the Fort Chipewyan water intake. It concludes that the water at that point is safe to drink, with levels of many of the toxins too low to measure.
Results of water samples taken close to the release sites aren’t listed.
Official responses to the releases are being investigated by Alberta’s Information Commissioner, the province’s energy regulator and the House of Commons environmental and sustainable development committee. That committee has asked the head of the Alberta’s regulator and senior Imperial Oil officials to answer questions on April 20 and 24.
The regulator’s review is to ask if it’s the agency’s job to assess an incident report and if the proper communication processes were followed by both the regulator and the company. It will also ask if investigation, compliance and enforcement processes were followed.
That report is expected by the end of July.
Schmidt said the real issue is that the Kearl pond continues to seep into groundwater.
“It’s good that they’re looking at transparency and information sharing. But there is another issue here — a tailings pond that seems to be leaking.”
Imperial has said it’s building trenches and installing pumps to capture more seepage.
The regulator said it has asked other oilsands operators to review its tailings pond controls.
“At this time and based on our preliminary review, no issues have been identified,” regulator spokeswoman Teresa Broughton said in an email.
Bob Weber, The Canadian Press
This report by The Canadian Press was first published April 4, 2023.