Privacy commissioner investigating Alberta Energy Regulator over Kearl oilsands site leak

Click to play video: 'Kearl oilsands: Alberta’s privacy watchdog investigating after leak goes unreported for months'
Kearl oilsands: Alberta’s privacy watchdog investigating after leak goes unreported for months
An investigation was launched this week after a series of leaks in Alberta’s oilsands went unreported for months. Industrial wastewater containing dangerous levels of arsenic and other chemicals is stored in about 30 reservoirs across the region known as tailings ponds – with an estimated footprint of 300 square kilometres. The leak, which took place at the Kearl Lake site operated by Imperial Oil, is now under investigation by Alberta’s privacy watchdog and has raised serious questions about all tailings ponds. Heather Yourex-West reports – Mar 26, 2023

Alberta’s information and privacy commissioner (OIPC) launched an investigation Wednesday into the Alberta Energy Regulator’s communication about the tailings pond leak at Imperial’s Kearl project in the oilsands.

Privacy commissioner Diane McLeod will examine “whether AER had an obligation under Section 32 of the Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act (FOIP) to disclose information to the public or others about the leak.”

A request for the OIPC to investigate was made by an Alberta lawyer in early March.

Area First Nations and the Northwest Territories government have said they should have been kept in the loop on the spills from Imperial’s Kearl mine tailings ponds.

Story continues below advertisement

Tailings are the water, clay, sand and a small amount of leftover bitumen that remain after most of the bitumen has been removed from the oilsands during the extraction process at the mine.

Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation, which is downstream from the spill, said in a statement Tuesday that its representatives were recently able to access the spill site on the north side of the Kearl tailings pond.

“What we observed was worse than what anyone anticipated,” the First Nation said.

It said representatives saw toxic water still on the ground in an unfenced, uncontained area beside streams and ponds.

It said it also saw animal tracks in and out of the area, tailings puddles and no barriers between seepage and water bodies.

“We won’t stop until we have a full accounting of this catastrophe. We are not going away,” said Chief Allan Adam.

Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation representatives were given access to the Imperial spill site on the north side of the Kearl tailings pond. March 21, 2023. Supplied: Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation

The Northwest Territories has called it a violation of its agreement with Alberta for timely updates on emerging threats to their shared watershed.

Story continues below advertisement

The Alberta government said in an emailed response that the drinking water in the area is being tested.

“Over time, my department has done sampling from five different locations — 12 samples of water to six labs — that have looked at 575 different measurements,” said Environment Minister Sonya Savage.

“So far, all of that has shown that the drinking water is safe, that it hasn’t been impacted.”

On Wednesday, Imperial said based on its monitoring, released fluids did not enter any waterways and its water sampling continues to show there has been no impacts to local drinking water sources.

The first wastewater release was spotted and reported in May of last year as discoloured water near a tailings pond at the Kearl site north of Fort McMurray.

It was found to be tailings seepage and no further updates were provided to area First Nations until February when it was disclosed to the public and federal and provincial environment ministers along with news of a second release of 5.3 million litres of tailings.

Imperial hosted a community meeting Wednesday at 6 p.m. in Fort Chipewyan.

“Our team will be on site to answer questions from the community,” said Imperial spokesperson Lisa Schmidt before the meeting. “We appreciate the opportunity to begin to rebuild trust, share directly with community members and get their feedback.”

Story continues below advertisement

Early on in the meeting, two community members approached the front of the room and interrupted the Imperial spokesperson.

“Since May — you guys knew about this in 2022 — it was only reported a year after. You guys failed to disclose it to the province, to Canada — now my kids who are in the back have to live this for the next generation to come,” one of the unidentified men said.

The men stated their community may have to deal with fallout of the leak for the next 20 years.

They encouraged the Imperial Oil representative to drink water from the affected area.

There were more moments of tension as the community sought answers and assurances.

“Are you a scientist? Are you a health professional? Can you tell us the cumulative effects it’s going to have on industry and our traditional way of life?” the community member added.

Imperial insists there is no indication of impacts to wildlife or fish, but members of the community aren’t convinced.

Click to play video: 'Northern Alberta community not satisfied with province, Imperial Oil responses to Kearl spill'
Northern Alberta community not satisfied with province, Imperial Oil responses to Kearl spill

In its latest update, posted online Wednesday, Imperial said it has completed drilling more than 140 monitoring and pumping wells as part of its plans to expand its seepage interception system in close proximity to Kearl’s lease boundary.

Story continues below advertisement

Work is now underway to complete these wells and construct drainage structures in the area ahead of the spring melt, the oil company said.

A previous update, posted online March 19, said there are nearly 200 people working on remediation and related activities at the Kearl site. The company said all seven Indigenous communities have been invited to tour the site and do independent water testing.

“Imperial’s current monitoring and water sampling data has been stable and shows no impacts to local waterways or drinking water,” the company stated March 19. “There continues to be no indication of impacts to wildlife or fish.”

Imperial said it conducted wildlife monitoring and installed additional fencing at inactive work areas to prevent potential access.

The company also said it did “notify communities at the time of both incidents in May 2022 and February 2023. We deeply regret communications during our investigations into the May incident were not regularly provided to communities.”

In a statement shared on its website, the OIPC said the investigation will look at:

  • After learning about the substance release(s) from Imperial, did AER have a duty under Section 32(1) to disclose information about a risk of significant harm to the environment or to the health and safety of the public, of the affected group of people, or of the person? Did AER have a duty under Section 32(1) to disclose information that is clearly in the public interest?
  • If so, has AER fulfilled its Section 32 duty?

Premier Danielle Smith said the delay in public notification has illuminated the need for Alberta to ensure future alarms are sounded more quickly.

Story continues below advertisement

Smith said her government is working with the province’s oilsands regulator to develop better policies to give affected groups timely notification.

“Good practice and being a good neighbour (means) more communication is better,” Smith said Tuesday at an unrelated news conference in Mundare, Alta.

“That’s going to be our approach going forward. I’ve talked to the environment minister about that and the energy minister about that and the regulator about that.

“We’ll be working with the (Alberta Energy) Regulator to develop new processes to make sure that any time there is an incident that the comms are clear, that we have radical transparency and, just even as a courtesy, make sure any impacted party has a heads-up so they don’t have any fear based on the misinformation they see on social media or in the media.”

Click to play video: 'Ottawa invites Alberta Energy Regulator, Imperial Oil to testify in House of Commons'
Ottawa invites Alberta Energy Regulator, Imperial Oil to testify in House of Commons

Earlier this week, federal Environment Minister Steven Guilbeault repeated his call for a stronger federal presence when it comes to environmental monitoring and communications in the oilsands in light of the Kearl seepages.

Story continues below advertisement

Guilbeault also repeated his plan for a new body with federal, provincial and First Nation members that would meet regularly to share information, especially on environmental emergencies.

It would also discuss cleaning up tailings releases, how to keep the vast toxic ponds contained and long-term solutions for them.

Guilbeault said officials from Imperial and the Alberta Energy Regulator will be invited to appear before the House of Commons environment and sustainable development committee.

Kearl, located about 70 kilometres north of Fort McMurray, is one of the newest oilsands site in the area, coming online in the past decade. The company said its leases occupy approximately 200 square kilometres in the region.

The mine is jointly owned by Imperial Oil (71 percent) and ExxonMobil Canada (29 percent). Both are owned by international oil and gas corporation ExxonMobil.

— With files from Karen Bartko, Global News and Bob Weber and Dean Bennett, The Canadian Press

Sponsored content