July 23, 2013 7:00 am
Updated: October 16, 2013 8:46 pm

Four years, thousands of pages, myriad errors: Alberta’s access to info needs work, report says

When Global News requested a database of Alberta's environmental incidents, it received hundreds of pages of printed-out records.

Leslie Young/Global News

A new report from two environmental groups slams the Alberta government for failing to provide “timely, accurate, error-free and complete information” on environmental incidents in the oilsands.

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The report, “Environmental Incidents in Northeastern Alberta’s Bitumen Sands Region,” published Tuesday, found that breaches of environmental regulations in the area are rarely enforced. It was originally intended to simply investigate those incidents, said Kevin Timoney, Principal Investigator at Treeline Ecological Research and co-author of the report with Peter Lee of Global Forest Watch Canada.

But given the difficulties they experienced trying to obtain the information in the first place, “it ended up being a study of environmental incidents and the whole process of freedom of information,” said Timoney.

Multiple requests for information over several years produced 1,700 printed pages, then thousands more pages of pdf files. Hours spent manually converting this back into database format showed numerous errors in the data, Timoney said.

“It was extremely frustrating. I just reached a point where I was so frustrated I said, ‘I’m going to do whatever it takes to extract this information’ because I just felt wronged by the whole process,” he said.

“It just seems like it’s a process that’s designed not to release information but rather to appear to release information.”

Global News is seeking further comment from Alberta Environment on the particulars of the report and Timoney’s experience.

According to the report, the researchers originally requested data from Alberta Environment and Sustainable Resource Development’s Environmental Management System in July, 2008. The response arrived in paper form: roughly 1,700 pages in total.

Timoney made a second request in August, 2012. In this case the data was provided in an electronic Adobe PDF file format, about 3,500 pages.

Providing data in paper form or in PDFs fulfills the government’s legal requirements to disclose information, but when large databases are disclosed in this manner, it makes them extremely tough to analyze – “unusable, basically,” Timoney said.

The researchers hired a programmer to convert the information back into database format. Once they had, Timoney said, they found the data was full of errors.

“By the time it gets to the public, it’s gone through this process where the electronic copy has been extracted to a pdf, printed onto paper, then scanned to be an electronic copy, and that’s what we get,” he said. “By the time you put it through the blender, what you get is literally five or ten thousand errors that then have to be fixed.”

It took about four months with the programmer’s help to convert the files and correct errors, he said.

Even when the database was fixed, Timoney discovered that it was missing important information. “The most serious incidents never become part of the publicly available data,” he said. This is because files under investigation are withheld from the incident tracking database, he said. Even when an investigation is closed, Timoney believes, its records aren’t added back.

“When the public requests information, we expect it to be accurate, not filled with errors. If we’re trying to understand the incident regime in the area and all we get is garbled information, it becomes extremely difficult to know what’s happening.”

When asked generally about its database systems, Alberta Environment indicated that there is room for improvement.

“Where we can modernize into a more computerized database, we’re trying to do that,” said ministry spokesperson Jessica Potter. “It is something that we’re working towards.”

The current reporting system has been in place for a long time, she said. And because it’s such a big, busy department, it takes a long time and significant resources to change its processes.

“Companies are required in their approvals to notify all public who may potentially be impacted,” in the event of an incident, she said. “It may not be a matter of it being an entire provincial response or notification, but those who may be potentially impacted in the area are notified and are required to be.”

The quality of public notification has become an issue of contention, however – in the form of public consternation at being left in the dark by provincial regulators or the province castigating companies for only doing as much public outreach as is required.

As Timoney was wrestling with provincial data in the summer and fall of 2012, Global News was going through a similar process, having requested information on oil spills from the same database. Global encountered many of the same problems, such as long delays, paper printouts, numerous errors and missing incidents. Global eventually decided the data was too unreliable for its investigation into oil spills, and obtained a cleaner database from the Energy Resources Conservation Board that better documented this  kind of incident. But the board’s data relies largely on information self-reported by corporations. Timoney suspects it’s missing many incidents as well.

The new Alberta Energy Regulator recently began publishing a version of the old board’s database on its website. Updated daily, this information shows a selection of incidents, notably those involving sour gas and sour crude and incidents that have impacts off-lease. The regulator says the website shows the “vast majority” of incidents reported to it.

Incidents reported to the energy regulator are not necessarily the same as those reported to environment, although the two are supposed to merge energy oversight responsibilities over the next several months. The data is also not available for download; regulator spokesperson Cara Tobin said they’re planning to look at this in the future, and hope to improve the data in other ways. “It’s a work in progress,” she said.

Timoney says it’s “encouraging” that the regulator has taken this “small step.” But he feels his experience indicates the Alberta government is not transparent when it comes to environmental incidents in the oilsands.

The two groups who worked on the study, Treeline Ecological Research and Global Forest Watch Canada, are planning to make their reconstructed database available for download on their website.

“I feel very strongly that the public has a right to know what’s happening,” Timoney said. “In this situation, what we’re trying to do is say, ‘Decide for yourself. Here’s the information that we gathered. If you wish to decide that environmental management in the bitumen sands region is good or bad, here’s a set of information that you can look at to decide for yourself.’”

You can also download Global News’ database of releases from the oil and gas industry, obtained from the Alberta Energy Resources Conservation Board (now the Alberta Energy Regulator) here.

Read: Environmental incidents in Alberta’s oilsands

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