Local Journalism Initiative Reporter
On April 24, the third and final day of hearings on toxic leaks of tailings ponds at the Kearl oilsands mine in northeastern Alberta, the Standing Committee on Environment and Sustainable Development in Ottawa will hear from representatives of the Alberta Energy Regulator (AER). It’s a quasi-judicial body and the single regulator of energy development in Alberta.
Last week on April 17, the House of Commons all-party standing committee kicked off its hearing by listening to the Indigenous communities located downstream from the leaks.
“For me, getting the message outside of Alberta that we struggle with the Alberta Energy Regulator is incredibly important,” said Daniel Stuckless, director for Fort McKay Métis Nation, who was part of the initial panel that comprised representatives from impacted Indigenous communities.
Last Thursday the standing committee heard from representatives of Imperial Oil, which operates the Kearl site. Under scrutiny are the actions taken—and not taken—by Imperial from Spring 2022 through to the beginning of this year when multiple leaks were detected at the site.
In March, the standing committee made a motion to study the leak of tailings ponds. The occurrences at the site came to public attention after the AER issued an environmental protection order (EPO) on Feb. 6 for the release of 5.3 million litres of industrial wastewater due to an overflow in an industrial wastewater storage pond.
However, it was discovered that Imperial had been having issues with containment since May of 2022 when discoloured surface water was found to the north and northeast of the mine site (off-site) in four locations. AER was informed at that time, but communication between Imperial and the impacted Indigenous communities about the leaks was inconsistent and not fulsome.
Stuckless, along with representatives from the First Nations of Fort McKay, Fort McMurray, Athabasca Chipewyan and Mikisew Cree, as well as the Métis Nations of Fort McMurray and Willow Lake, addressed the standing committee a week ago.
While they heavily criticized the actions of Imperial Oil, they slammed the AER and the Alberta government for weak regulations and a weak process that favours industry over communities.
Stuckless told Windspeaker.com that he was tired of hearing Alberta Members of Parliament and provincial Members of the Legislative Assembly lauding Alberta’s regulations for oil and gas development as “the Holy Grail approach” compared to all other oil producing regimes.
“We might have First World regulations, but we have Third World application of them,” said Stuckless.
Indigenous communities continuously spent time, money and work to challenge the claims of oil and gas proponents, he said, only to have their findings “dismissed as not a requirement, out of scope…no data supported or the company data takes precedent and gets weight.”
As for Imperial CEO Brad Corson’s comments to the standing committee on April 20, Stuckless doesn’t doubt that Imperial recognizes the severity of what has happened.
“As a company, as a way their company operates, I see them taking it very seriously and getting it addressed quickly,” said Stuckless.
At the hearing Corson apologized repeatedly for what transpired at Kearl, saying it “is not reflective of how we operate and who we are as a company. We are disappointed in this recent performance.”
He said the incidents had broken the trust that Imperial “strives to build…by failing in our commitment to provide sufficient communications to neighbouring Indigenous communities.”
However, Corson said Imperial followed protocol established in the confidential individual impact benefit agreements by informing environmental committees in the Indigenous communities about the May 2022 concerns. He said the environmental committees did not relay that communication up the chain to chiefs or band councils.
As for the province not knowing until the Feb. 6 EPO was issued by AER, Helga Shield, manager of Environment, Regulatory and Socioeconomic for Imperial, said the company reported the May 2022 incident to the Environmental and Dangerous Goods Emergencies (EDGE) hotline with “the expectation…that when we call to EDGE the fan-out process starts at that point.”
According to the EDGE website, it “communicates openly with other regulatory agencies, such as the Alberta Energy Regulator (AER), in the event of an emergency or safety-related incident.” EDGE falls under Alberta Transportation.
As to why the provincial government wasn’t informed at that time, Shield said she “can’t speak for how the regulator runs EDGE.”
Corson said Imperial did not provide updates to Indigenous communities following the May 2022 seepage and instead elected to wait until testing had been completed.
He acknowledged that while tests from Environment and Climate Change Canada indicated seep locations with exceedances above established guidelines in readings of arsenic, sulphates and hydrocarbon, “separate samples that have been taken at the Firebag River, at the Athabasca River on an ongoing basis that show no deviation.”
He said these samples indicate safe drinking water.
Corson said he understood that the lack of constant communication with Indigenous communities and lack of shared information resulted in uncertainty for residents.
Fort McMurray-Cold Lake MP Laila Goodridge pushed Corson on this.
“It didn’t just create uncertainty. It created fear. The fear was real. It was palpable,” said Goodridge, commenting on what she noted when she spent time in her riding after the environmental concerns were known.
“It’s horrible that happened. I feel very sad that happened and I place high priority, a high value on those relationships,” said Corson.
As for the work being undertaken to address the tailings ponds leaks, MPs asked questions, pushed for answers, but continually cut off Simon Younger, Imperial vice president for upstream operations, as he tried to explain the complexities of mitigating the leaks and testing well water samples.
Between Younger and Corson, the two men explained that 140 new monitoring and interception wells had been installed; that new pumps would mitigate the seepage that had been detected at the four isolated locations with that water returned to the tailings ponds; and more than 400 metres of trenching had been installed to help intercept the seepage.
“The failures…relate to the drainage pond that overflowed…that overflow never should have occurred. It was our mistake. We have learned from that error and we’ve made adjustments at the drainage pond in question and also at our other drainage ponds,” said Younger.
Both Younger and Corson repeated that the Kearl operations had conformed to industry standard.
“Seepage was anticipated in our design of our Kearl tailings system. That’s industry standard. We have a seepage interception standard and that’s exactly what it’s there and installed to do and that concept is proven and that’s conventional technology that we have employed,” said Younger.
It’s those guidelines and standards set by the province and industry that have Stuckless concerned.
“I just don’t necessarily think that just because they meet a particular guideline or standard that the impact is zero. It just means its non-detect and that’s just a very careful consideration nuance and that’s just the world we live in,” he said.
Stuckless harkens back to 2006 when a joint panel from Environment Canada and the Alberta Energy and Utilities Board held hearings on the Kearl oilsands mine. At the time, Fort McKay Métis Nation raised concerns about seepage, he said. The project was approved by the provincial Energy Resources Conservation Board (ERCB). The AER has since taken over the functions of the ERCB.
“Imperial’s situation…is not forgivable,” said Stuckless, but he adds he trusts Imperial to fix what has happened.
“It won’t be easy. It’ll probably be super costly given the type of issue that they’ve encountered. But they know they won’t be permitted to operate for very much longer without addressing it,” said Stuckless.
Corson told the standing committee that Imperial was waiting for the final certificate from AER that clean up had been completed based on the soil samples that Imperial had taken of the impacted areas.
Stuckless said the federal government needs to step up and play an active role.
“I don’t think this will be a popular opinion in Alberta because of the protest you’re seeing on Bill C-69 and other federal bills, but for communities that I’ve worked for over the years, from a community point-of-view of having their concerns addressed up front so these types of things don’t happen, it’s incredibly important to have the federal government involved,” he said.
The Impact Assessment Act (Bill C-69) would allow Ottawa to consider the effects of new resource projects on environmental and social issues, including climate change. Alberta challenged the Act in court and, last year, the Alberta Court of Appeal ruled that the federal government had overstepped its jurisdiction. Ottawa appealed the decision and in March the Supreme Court heard arguments on the constitutionality of the Act and reserved its decision.
Stuckless would like to see the standing committee recommend to the federal environment minister that Ottawa’s environmental assessment list of designated projects be revamped to include mine expansions, new mines and in situ projects.
“The big push in the background from the communities in the (Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo) is to have projects designated on the project list so they are joint panels (between the Alberta and federal governments),” said Stuckless.
With joint panels, he said, Indigenous concerns are not so readily dismissed.
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Local Journalism Initiative Reporters are supported by a financial contribution made by the Government of Canada.