Alberta broke the terms of an agreement it reached with the Northwest Territories to inform it of threats to its shared watershed after two major oil sands tailings spills, a said the territory’s environment minister on Friday.
Shane Thompson said the lack of communication is not encouraging as Alberta and the federal government work out the terms under which the tailings will be treated and released into the Athabasca River.
“The bilateral agreement states that Alberta is supposed to notify us of any ecological change that occurs and has not done so,” he said.
“This event underlines our position. The Government of the Northwest Territories will not support tailings dumping unless strong science shows how to proceed.
“We also need to see the science.”
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Employees at Imperial Oil’s Kearl Lake oil sands facility first reported leaks from a tailings pond last May to the Alberta Energy Regulator.
A second release of at least 5.3 million liters of sewage was reported in early February from a storage pond. That alone makes it one of the largest spills in Alberta’s history.
Tailings flowed into muskeg and forest as well as a small lake and tributaries to the Firebag and Muskeg rivers.
Sewage exceeds federal and provincial guidelines for iron, arsenic, sulfates, and hydrocarbons which could include kerosene, creosote, and diesel.
Seepage, the amount of which has not been estimated, continues.
Thompson said his government was never officially notified of the spill, despite the 2015 legally binding agreement on bilateral Mackenzie Basin water management with Alberta.
This agreement repeatedly stresses the importance of mutual and rapid notification of changes in the catchment area, including in the event of an emergency.
“The protocols will ensure that the party in whose jurisdiction the emergency arises will notify the other partner without delay,” it says.
Thompson said he met several times with his Alberta counterpart Sonya Savage — who was the province’s former energy minister — after the leak was first reported and before Feb. 6, when the Alberta Energy Regulator issued a warning. environmental protection order.
“At no time did this conversation take place,” he said.
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Federal Environment Minister Steven Guilbeault has expressed deep concern over the reports of the tailings ponds at the Kearl mine.
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He said his first thoughts are with the health and well-being of the families of the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation and other affected communities.
“I have reached out to Chief (Allan) Adam of the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation as well as my Alberta counterpart, Minister Sonya Savage, to get to the bottom of the situation from their perspective and offer the government’s unwavering support. federal. Guilbeault said in a statement.
Guilbeault said his department’s federal law enforcement officers will be provided with all necessary resources to continue their independent assessment, under the jurisdiction of the federal Fisheries Act, to determine next steps.
“We need to see a clear remediation plan from the company and better understand the apparent communication failures for notification of this spill,” he said.
“Rebuilding a relationship based on trust will take a concerted effort, as well as industry transparency, collaboration and investment.”
Savage said Alberta’s United Conservative Party government is monitoring the situation and that she and Premier Danielle Smith have been briefed by the province’s regulator.
“We understand from them that remediation is ongoing and no contaminated water has entered the water system or affected human health or wildlife,” Savage said in a statement.
“The Government of Alberta stands ready to assist the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation and other communities in any way necessary should it be required, and we look forward to the results of the AER’s investigation.”
Neither government has said when they first learned of the leak.
This is not the first time the Northwest Territories has expressed frustration with its upstream neighbour.
In August 2020, the territory was upset that it had not been informed that Alberta had suspended environmental monitoring on the Athabasca due to COVID-19 concerns. Monitoring was subsequently resumed and is still ongoing.
Now, Thompson said the territory doesn’t play a big enough role in developing regulations for the potential discharge of treated oil sands tailings water into the river.
“We need the science that they’re supposed to share with us,” he said. “It has to be transparent.
“We’ve started the conversation, (but) we want it to be more regular.”
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Meanwhile, a second First Nation complained of being misinformed about spills on their lands.
On Thursday, Chief Adam of the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation said he only learned of the extent of the spill after the Alberta Energy Regulator issued the environmental protection order and charged Imperial for trying to hide it.
On Friday, the Mikisew Cree First Nation said they were treated the same way.
Chief Billy-Joe Tuccaro said failing to keep his band informed is a failure of the Alberta Energy Regulator. Scientists warned of the likelihood of soil seepage beneath the tailings pond when the project was first approved, he said.
“The AER and Canada approved Imperial’s project knowing the risk of seepage for this tailings pond. There needs to be an independent review of the approval of this tailings pond and the management of this mess by the AER,” he said.
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