A third-party report has found that the Alberta Energy Regulator (AER) followed existing policies in response to millions of litres of oil sands wastewater seeping out of the Kearl Oil Sands Mine, but has recommended improving the regulator’s outdated notification protocols.
The report by Deloitte LLP states the need to enhance the AER’s risk assessment, incident escalation and board communication processes that may have contributed to the regulator’s delay in notifying the public about the leaks at the Imperial Oil tailings pond.
The report highlights the need for the AER to balance the integrity of its incident investigations with expectations around stakeholder transparency.
“In conclusion, our review has identified opportunities for improvement that will clarify and mature processes, and procedures as well as streamline the AER’s governance system for incident and emergency management,” the report states.
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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 wastewater overflowed from a containment pond at the site in February 2023, and a federal environmental protection order was issued, that the AER notified First Nations located downstream about the full extent of the incidents.
Imperial Oil attributed the leak to equipment and process failures, as well as an unexpectedly shallow layer of groundwater.
A key recommendation in the report includes the need for the AER to standardize and clarify the terms “incident” and “emergency” and establish formal documented procedures for internal communication and escalation to management.
The AER Board Chair David Goldie said that the board has agreed with the Deloitte report and accepts its findings and recommendations.
“The Board is committed to ensuring the AER moves swiftly to address Deloitte’s operational and communication recommendations,” Goldie announced in a statement. “I have asked AER Management to develop an operational implementation plan. Doing so will ensure that the AER is more prepared and capable as a regulator and will help to ensure we better meet expectations of Indigenous communities and key stakeholders.”
The report also advised AER to create clear guidelines and timelines for engaging with Indigenous peoples for more timely and relevant communication during incident response.
In a statement following the release of the report, Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation Chief Allan Adam announced that the AER should expect legal action from his community in the coming months.
“The Alberta energy regulator as well as the Alberta government failed to protect the communities downstream from Fort Chip,” Chief Adam told local media.
Adam added that “it’s not surprising” that the AER “absolved itself of any responsibility” around failing to prevent the incidents or communicate their seriousness to downstream communities.
Adam is also calling on the federal government to conduct a full geotechnical audit of tailings facilities in the oil sands, as well as a health study on nearby residents.