A northern Alberta Indigenous leader has accused Imperial Oil Ltd. of a nine-month coverup over an enormous 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 probabilities to inform him in person concerning the leak on the Kearl Lake oilsands site, after it was discovered in May.
But he didn’t study it until 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 a possibility where they might have come clean, but they selected to cover the very fact from us over and yet again.”
Imperial expressed regret over the communication.
“We recognize the communities’ concerns about delays in receiving additional information,” said a Thursday statement from Jamie Long, Imperial’s vice-president of mining.
“We now have expressed to (Chief Adam) directly our regret that our communications didn’t meet the expectations of the (Athabasca Chipewyan) community,” he said.
“We further committed to him that we’re taking the mandatory steps to enhance our communications so this doesn’t occur again in the longer term.”
Shane Thompson, environment minister of the Northwest Territories, said the Alberta government broke an agreement with the territory by not telling it concerning the spill. The N.W.T. is downstream of the oilsands.
“This lack of transparency and data sharing from our Alberta partners will not be an isolated incident, which increases our frustration on this matter,” he said in a release.
“This failure comes at a time when the Alberta government is asking for trust and co-operation from the N.W.T. as they work towards regulations to permit the discharge of treated oilsands tailings effluent into the environment.”
Thompson said he has asked for a gathering together with his Alberta counterpart Sonya Savage to make sure the agreement between the 2 jurisdictions is upheld.
Imperial employees first reported seepage was escaping from a tailings pond and making its solution to the surface in May. The corporate 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 might include kerosene, creosote and diesel. The seepage has continued.
As well as, 5.3 million litres of water escaped from a dam meant to capture escaped tailings. That makes it, by itself, one in all the most important spills in Alberta history.
The tailings leaked onto muskeg and forest in addition to a small lake and tributaries of the Firebag and Muskeg rivers.
No public notification was fabricated from the 2 releases until the Alberta Energy Regulator issued the environmental protection order.
By then, says Adam, his people had been harvesting, sharing and eating food harvested from adjoining lands for months.
“We now have land users in the realm that hunt and fish animals that might have been exposed to those deadly toxins. We now have been eating them for months unaware of the potential danger.”
Imperial has said there have been no impacts on water or wildlife because of this of the releases.
“It’s going to be hard for me to imagine anything that comes out of the representatives of Imperial or from the (regulator),” said Adam.
Band members have photographed moose tracks going through the affected area.
People have been told to not eat wildlife from the realm, and the community of Fort Chipewyan has diverted its water source from the Athabasca River to a reservoir.
The regulator ordered Imperial to supply plans on how it might stop the releases and stop future ones by Feb. 28. Imperial was also ordered to supply a monitoring and remediation plan in addition to a public communications plan.
A spokeswoman for the regulator said Imperial has met those requirements.
In a press release, the regulator said notifying affected people about releases isn’t its job.
“It’s the licensee’s responsibility to report fluid releases to affected or potentially affected parties as soon as they develop into aware of the discharge,” it said.
An investigation has been launched, it said.
In a press release, Long said Imperial values its relationships with local communities.
“We recognize there are concerns about recent issues at our Kearl oilsands operations related to the discharge of business wastewater. We regret these incidents and are making every effort to learn from them and stop them from happening again.”
Imperial has installed extra monitoring and pumping wells to try to control the seepage. Trees and topsoil in the realm have been stripped. It said further water catchment areas will likely be built.
Enforcement officers from Environment and Climate Change Canada have been on-site.
The chance of a tailings leak was identified within 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.”
Evidence that oilsands tailings have been seeping into groundwater from at the least a number of the mines in the realm dates back to at the least 2009.
In 2014, published research from federal scientists confirmed oilsands process-affected water had reached groundwater and was probably leaching into the Athabasca River.
On the time, the Alberta government said the research was of interest but didn’t confirm anything.
In 2020, a bunch reporting to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization said there was “scientifically valid evidence” the tailings ponds were contaminating groundwater.
The federal government said it was reviewing the report but didn’t find the evidence conclusive.
“What number of more tailings leaks are happening straight away?” Allan asked.
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