Alberta Premier Danielle Smith is downplaying the effect of two major oil sands tailings water releases, two First Nations leaders in the region said Wednesday.
Meanwhile, Environment Canada has confirmed that the Alberta government has not passed on news of the spill. The federal agency, which is investigating the spill, released a timeline saying the department was first notified of the First Nations releases.
Earlier this week, Smith said the release of at least 5.3 million liters of toxic tailings from Imperial Oil’s Kearl Lake mine had had no effect on local waterways or wildlife.
She also blamed Imperial for slow communications on the releases, which led to the spread of “misinformation”.
“I don’t really know why she would say that,” said Chief Billy-Joe Tuccaro of the Mikisew Cree First Nation, which is downline from the releases. Its members also harvest on land adjacent to them.
“I really believe it’s too early to be definitive. (Smith’s) comments are very concerning.
Chief Allan Adam of the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation said the discharges – which contain toxic levels of contaminants, such as arsenic – are much more than a communication problem.
“This is an environmental disaster that (Alberta’s energy regulator) and Imperial Oil tried to cover up and now the Premier and (Environment Minister Sonya Savage) are trying to minimize.”
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Smith’s office did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Last May, Imperial discovered brown sludge that later turned out to be seepage from a nearby tailings pond.
Tailings are water, clay, sand and a small amount of bitumen left over after most of the bitumen has been removed from the oil sands during the extraction process at the mine.
The company informed Alberta authorities and First Nations about the initial discovery, but did not release further information until February, when another 5.3 million liters of tailings leaked from a pond. of containment.
Environment Canada said it learned of the releases on Feb. 7, the same day the Alberta Energy Regulator issued an environmental protection order.
“First Nations have contacted (the ministry) regarding a recent spill/seepage,” the timeline reads.
Alberta’s United Conservative Party government did not say when it first learned of the releases.
Tuccaro and Adam are angry at their people harvesting for nine months from neighboring lands without being kept informed.
“Trust was shattered,” Tuccaro said.
Imperial allows Mikisew environmental monitors at the disposal site to make their own measurements, he said. Tuccaro said the group wants this arrangement to be made permanent and not just on the Kearl site, but on all oil sands leases.
“I’m not looking for a fix for them to allow us for a few months,” he said. “I ask the life of the project.”
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Tuccaro said Imperial Oil executives promised to visit the Fort Chipewyan community later this month to discuss the situation.
“We have invited community leaders to visit the site and are working directly with those communities on related requests,” Imperial spokeswoman Lisa Schmidt said. `
“We have also shared our mitigation and monitoring plans with communities and asked for feedback on these plans.”
The Northwest Territories government said Alberta’s failure to notify it of the spills violated a bilateral watershed agreement shared by the two jurisdictions.
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Tuccaro was also scheduled to meet with federal Environment Minister Steven Guilbeault. Tuccaro said he would seek immediate help, including ensuring his community has an adequate water supply.
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The Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo stopped drawing water from the Athabasca River, forcing Fort Chipewyan to rely on limited supplies from its reservoir.
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In a statement, Adam said there is ample evidence to suggest the tailings entered local groundwater and waterways.
Imperial’s reports indicate that tailings entered a nearby small fish-bearing lake. The province’s energy regulator has warned of likely impacts to off-mine-site areas. Aerial photos taken by the First Nation show animal tracks in the release area.
“Photographs of affected water pools, provided by Imperial, clearly show that the affected water passed through the porous ground,” the group’s statement said.
Additionally, Environment Canada said it received a February 14 report of tailings that had escaped from the mine site.
“(Environment Canada) has received a report from Alberta regarding a concern raised by a member of the public about a tailings fluid leak exiting the site,” the timeline reads. “The concern was impacts to wildlife on a trapline near the facility.”
Adam said Imperial refused a request from the group to allow its monitors onto the site.
“Transparency and accountability should not be radical concepts in Alberta,” Adam said in a statement Wednesday.
“We expect the Prime Minister to be fully transparent with the ACFN, other Indigenous communities and the public, and to demand accountability at all levels for the many failings that led to this incident.
“We expect real action from the Prime Minister and all other responsible officials to ensure this never happens again.”
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Imperial said all affected surface ice and snow in the area had been removed and disposed of safely. He said the seepage is mostly natural groundwater and precipitation with a “small amount” of tailings.
It installs monitoring and collection wells, surface pumps and additional drainage collectors to prevent further discharge.
Company officials apologized for the slow communication.
Kearl, located about 70 kilometers north of Fort McMurray, is one of the region’s newest oil sands sites, commissioned within the last decade. The company said its leases occupy about 200 square kilometers in the area.
The mine is jointly owned by Imperial Oil (71%) and ExxonMobil Canada (29%). Both are owned by international oil and gas company ExxonMobil.
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