Alberta and its regulator get rough ride at Parliamentary committee for Kearl tailings pond seepage fiasco

Monday, April 17th, 2023 5:24pm


Image Caption

Chief Allan Adam of Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation


“The Kearl crisis shows these failures on multiple fronts and we fear that Kearl is just the tip of the iceberg. We are bracing for even more catastrophic events…” —Mikisew Cree First Nation Chief Billie-Joe Tuccaro
By Shari Narine
Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

Representatives from First Nations and Métis communities in northeastern Alberta slammed the Alberta Energy Regulator (AER) and the provincial government today when they spoke to the House of Commons all-party Standing Committee on Environment and Sustainable Development in Ottawa.

Multiple leaks at Imperial Oil’s Kearl oil sands mine north of Fort McMurray was the reason for the hearing. And the company wasn’t spared criticism, but was also viewed as just the latest example in a system that is not working in Alberta.

“All trust with the Alberta government has been broken. It has been broken for a long time. It is clear that they cannot be trusted to oversee this mess. This mess has been going on since the 1960s,” said Chief Allan Adam of Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation.

Adam, who flew to Ottawa to present in person, called out committee chair Francis Scarpaleggia for saying all presentations were limited to five minutes. Adam threatened to walk out if he wasn’t given the time he needed. He spoke for almost 20 minutes.

In March, the committee made a motion to study the toxic leak of tailings ponds. That leak came to public attention after the AER issued an environmental protection order on Feb. 6. However, it was determined that Imperial had been having issues with containment since May of 2022 and had reported those issues to the AER back then. But Imperial never contacted any of the Indigenous communities downstream about the leaks.

“The Kearl crisis shows these failures on multiple fronts and we fear that Kearl is just the tip of the iceberg. We are bracing for even more catastrophic events unless there are real reforms,” said Mikisew Cree First Nation Chief Billie-Joe Tuccaro, who spoke virtually and also spoke uninterrupted past his allotted five minutes.

Lack of communication on the parts of both Imperial and the AER has eroded trust even further, and shows that the AER has put industry before people, said Daniel Stuckless, director for the Fort McKay Métis Nation.

He said federal approvals come with “hundreds of conditions” that must be met, while the AER limits restrictions which it allows the proponent to drive.

“It’s a baked system and nothing changes…It is “cookie cutter” day in, day out…type of approvals,” said Stuckless, who also spoke virtually.

"The regulator is constantly pulling the direction of the conversation in the interests of the regulated parties rather than the public interest," said Timothy Clark, principal of environmental consultancy at Willow Springs Strategic Solutions, which is working with the Fort McMurray Métis Nation.

The only way to address the issue, said Stuckless, was to “scrap it and build it back.”

“How do we build a regulator that is truly independent of the industry that it is regulating and is actually able to discharge the public interest and hold the public confidence?” said Clark.

However, correcting the system went beyond replacing the AER.

“Canada must also shoulder the responsibility of what is happening,” said Adam, who added that Canada was not fulfilling obligations it held under a number of federal Acts, including the Canadian Environmental Protection Act.

“We can point to the lack of enforcement, lack of funding, lack of political will, but these are excuses and not solutions,” said Adam.

He called on the federal government to undertake a comprehensive audit of the structural integrity of tailings and pipeline infrastructure across the entire oilsands region.

Clark, who was in Ottawa, added that the duty to consult has been downgraded from the federal Crown to the provinces to industry, who in turn contract third parties to do that work.

“The psychological effects of feeling like you don’t matter, your voice isn’t heard, that’s a pretty clear indication to me of where the priority on Indigenous rights and Indigenous people rest in this process,” he said.

Both Adam and Tuccaro called for full assessments on the cumulative impact all industry is having on the environment in their region as well as the impact on their Section 35 treaty and inherent rights.

Tuccaro said his people were “asking for certainty” about their health and their ability to practise their traditions and culture.

“Certainty about the way our land will look and function in the future. Certainty that we will be able to continue our way of life on the land, that our rights be protected as promised to us in 1899,” he said.

Scarpaleggia said the questions and concerns raised by the Indigenous representatives will be taken to Imperial Oil when they appear in front of the standing committee on Thursday afternoon.

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Local Journalism Initiative Reporters are supported by a financial contribution made by the Government of Canada.