Suncor incident highlights ‘continued failure’ of Alberta regulator: First Nation chief

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

The chief of the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation (ACFN) says that Suncor’s release of muddy water into the Athabasca River further highlights the problems with Alberta’s energy regulator.

Suncor reported six-million litres of water that exceeded sediment guidelines were released into the river from a pond at its Fort Hills oilsands mine in northern Alberta.

“Suncor took action to stop the discharge system and the release has been stopped,” said a note from the Alberta Energy Regulator sent to area First Nations on Monday.

Suncor spokeswoman Erin Rees characterized the release as “surface water that has a high natural silt content.”

Normally, the sediments are allowed to settle and the water is emptied into a creek that drains into the Athabasca River. But on Sunday, Suncor reported that levels of solids suspended in the water were more than twice the allowed limit.

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The ACFN sent a news release Wednesday, saying members are concerned about substances being released into the environment, and only being communicated with “after the fact.”

“Suncor’s actions highlight the continued failure of the AER to prevent, properly communicate, or proactively regulate environmental catastrophes in the oilsands,” Chief Allan Adam said.

“The AER needs to be disbanded and replaced with a new agency that is able to properly oversee industry. An agency that is rooted in the protection of our Section 35 and Treaty rights.”

Click to play video: 'Anger grows after Alberta oilsands leak kept from public for months'
Anger grows after Alberta oilsands leak kept from public for months

The nation said the Suncor incident — coming on the heels of the Kearl oilsands wastewater spill — is another example of “a systemic problem with the management and structural integrity of tailings ponds across the entire region, and a regulator that refuses to regulate.”

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Suncor said it has stopped outflow from the pond and is studying the cause of the problem and how it affected water quality.

Spokespeople for the ACFN and Mikisew Cree First Nation said the bands were notified of the release Monday.

The note sent to First Nations said the water is from a pond used to settle suspended solids in surface water that runs in from various parts of the site. The water has drained from muskeg, rock and soil overlaying the bitumen, material being stored for reclamation and other areas of the site that are undisturbed by mining.

Environment Canada has also confirmed that it was notified.

However, the government of the Northwest Territories said that Alberta failed again to let it know about what’s going on in a watershed they share.

“We are deeply concerned by this lack of information sharing and notification which is a commitment of our transboundary water management agreement,” Shane Thompson, the territory’s environment and climate change minister, said in a release.

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“This further erodes the trust of the government of the Northwest Territories, Indigenous governments and organizations, N.W.T. communities, and residents in the management of water, the potential release of treated tailings to the Athabasca River and (our) transboundary agreement.”

Thompson said he planned to raise the issue with his Alberta counterpart, Sonya Savage, in a meeting scheduled Wednesday.

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

“As with the Kearl spill, the AER failed to notify downstream communities beyond the Alberta border,” the ACFN said in its news release.

“Once again, it fell upon ACFN to alert residents of the Northwest Territories that their water had been potentially contaminated because of an industrial accident.

“This speaks to trans-boundary nature of this problem and is an object lesson in why the federal government needs to take control of the tailings problem immediately.”

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In a statement issued to Global News on Wednesday, Alberta’s provincial government said it has “shared information with the government of the Northwest Territories.”

The government added that “protection of drinking water and community safety is our main priority.”

“To date, there is no impact on drinking water,” the government said. “This was not a leak from a tailings pond and is not processed water from tailings — it is drainage from the surrounding landscape, an area not disturbed by mining. Drinking water treatment facilities in Alberta are designed to deal with elevated levels of total suspended solids as spring runoff often results in surges of sediment and other micro debris into source water.”

The provincial government added that the AER “will lead the investigation into this incident and ensure the operator takes the necessary steps to come back into compliance and protect the environment.”

“Additional actions by Alberta Environment and Protected Areas (EPA), if necessary, will be determined once we receive more details from the AER,” the statement said.

“Suncor has said that they have contacted Indigenous communities in the area, and the AER has followed up with its own communication.

“The AER, EPA and Environment and Climate Change Canada were notified of the release on April 16 by Alberta EDGE (Alberta’s environmental and dangerous goods reporting line). AER, as the regulator for oilsands mines, responded to the notification.”

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In a statement Tuesday, the AER said the Suncor release “was not a leak from a tailings pond, and the water that was released is not processed water from tailings, it is drainage from surrounding landscape.”

“Suncor has also advised that they have taken water quality samples and they will share the results when available,” the regulator said.

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

Timely notification of water releases from oilsands mine became an issue earlier this spring.

Last May, Imperial Oil noticed discoloured water seeping from one of its tailings ponds that turned out to be groundwater contaminated by waste, but neither First Nations, nor governments, were notified about the problem until February after a second release from a catchment pond.

Three inquiries have since been called into that nine-month silence — an internal probe called by the regulator’s board, an inquiry by Alberta’s information commissioner and a series of hearings by the House of Commons environment and sustainability committee.

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At those hearings on Monday, First Nations leaders called for the regulator to be disbanded and rebuilt. AER head Laurie Pushor and executives from Imperial Oil are expected to appear on Thursday.

Water tests after those releases have confirmed toxic chemicals in local groundwater and at least one nearby water body.

Federal environment minister Steven Guilbeault has promised to create a new watchdog group to ensure intergovernmental communication around wastewater releases, as well as to address ongoing concerns about the possibility of seepage from all oilsands tailings ponds.

In a statement on Monday, the CEO of the AER said: “We at the AER listened thoughtfully to today’s testimony before the House of Commons Environment and Sustainable Development Committee.

“Indigenous leaders of Alberta’s Northern Treaty 8 communities spoke courageously and openly on their concerns with a great number of important matters, including industry impacts of oilsands on their lands and peoples,” Laurie Pushor said in a statement.

“Our journey is to always strive to better understand these crucial perspectives” and consider how to turn them “into real actions… that continually improve how we regulate the industry.

“We also heard many of these concerns when we visited the communities during the past month. I will be personally appearing before the committee in Ottawa on April 24 to address these questions to the best of my ability.”

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— With files from Bob Weber, The Canadian Press

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