Alberta regulator, Imperial Oil apologize for not publicizing wastewater leaks

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Canada’s Minister of Environment and Climate Change has expressed concern that the recent oil seepage occurring at Alberta’s Kearl Oil Sands Mine was not reported by the company or the provincial regulator in “a timely manner”.

More than nine months passed before the Alberta Energy Regulator (AER) told local First Nations and the federal and provincial governments that wastewater from an Imperial Oil tailings pond was seeping into the environment.

It wasn’t until a second leak was discovered that Laurie Pushor, AER president and CEO, said the incidents were finally publicized due to a federal environmental protection order to stop the seepage.

“It is clear that neither Imperial nor the AER met community expectations to ensure they are fully aware of what is, and what was happening. And for that I am truly sorry,” Pushor told a parliamentary committee in Ottawa last month.

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Earlier in May, Environment and Climate Change Canada opened a formal investigation into potential Fisheries Act violations from the incidents.

“An enforcement file moves from inspection to investigation if and when the purpose of the collection of information shifts from the verification of compliance or for the purpose of taking administrative enforcement action, to that of collecting evidence for a potential prosecution,” the department wrote in a statement.

Discoloured sludge was first discovered outside the boundaries of one of the tailings ponds in May 2022 at the Kearl Lake area, about 70 kilometres north of Fort McMurray. But it wasn’t until 5.3 million litres of wastewater overflowed from a containment pond at the site in February 2023 that the AER notified First Nations located downstream from the incident.

Imperial attributed the leak to equipment and process failures, as well as an unexpectedly shallow layer of groundwater.

“Imperial strives to build strong and lasting relationships with Indigenous communities based on mutual trust, respect, and shared prosperity. We’ve broken this trust,” Brad Corson, CEO of Imperial Oil, told the House of Commons.

Following the first leak, Imperial was directed by the AER to install groundwater monitoring wells to determine where the water was coming from and implement a water quality sampling and monitoring plan.

In May, Imperial Oil announced that it is working to expand its seepage interception system with additional drainage structures, pumping wells and equipment, and is increasing water and wildlife monitoring in the area.

Steven Guilbeault, federal Minister of Environment and Climate Change, announced in a statement that a new Notification and Monitoring Working Group would include the federal and provincial governments, Indigenous nations from Fort Chipewyan, and the Government of Northwest Territories, with participation from oil sands company representatives.

“After analyzing the situation, it is clear the seepage was not communicated to affected communities in a timely or appropriate way by the company or the provincial regulator, nor was the federal government made aware in a timely manner,” announced Guilbeault. “I find this deeply concerning and expressed as much to my counterpart in Alberta,” he added.

In early May, Guilbeault announced that work is underway to improve the system for monitoring and reporting incidents like the tailings pond leak.

During his recent questioning in Ottawa, Pushor said he was unable to get into the details of the AER’s decision-making around the incidents due to its board of directors launching an independent review of the internal process.

In March, the Alberta information commissioner also announced an investigation into whether the AER had an obligation to disclose the leaks to the public.

The Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation has released several statements about what it calls a “systemic failure of Imperial’s tailing ponds.” Chief Allan Adam said that the failure of one pond might be explained as a malfunction, but the failures of several ponds suggest bigger problems at the Kearl site.

“Why are we being kept in the dark?” asked Chief Adam in a statement. “Why didn’t Imperial or the AER inform the public about these failures? There are no good answers to these questions, and that should make everyone, whether you are an investor, a citizen, or a harvester, very concerned.”

At this time, the Alberta Energy Regulator has not found any indication of a change in drinking water quality from the leaks, nor adverse impacts to fish or wildlife.

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