By Jeremy Appel, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter
(ANNews) – Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation Chief Allan Adam is reiterating his call for federal intervention against the Alberta Energy Regulator (AER) after Imperial Oil’s Kearl mine leaked into its nearby water supply for the third time in 18 months.
The Kearl facility leaked on Nov. 13, nine months after it was revealed that the company and AER concealed a May 2022 leakage from the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation.
The first spill was only revealed to the public and impacted First Nations because a larger spill in February forced the AER to address the initial leak publicly. But documents obtained from The Canadian Press suggest that the initial seepage had been on the AER’s radar as early as 2019.
Consulting firm Deloitte, in a review published in September, found that the AER had done everything by the book when it neglected to inform surrounding First Nations and the public about the initial spill.
The three Kearl spills came from different facilities. The first spill was from a tailings pond, which collects the toxic sludge leftover from mining, whereas the February spill came from a drainings pond, which collects industrial wastewater contaminated from mining.
Both these spills resulted in contamination of the water supply, which First Nations depend on for sustenance, and the AER issuing environmental protection and non-compliance orders, as well as Imperial executives and Indigenous leaders testifying before the House of Commons.
The most recent Kearl spill came from a settling pond, which captures surface water runoff to allow it to sit before being released, resulting in 670,000 litres of contaminated water leaking into the Muskeg River.
Imperial Oil spokesperson Lisa Schmidt told the Globe and Mail last week that the water in the most recent spill was already treated, but the culvert used to transfer the water to the Muskeg River eroded, leading to it being contaminated by soil.
Brian Jean, Alberta’s energy minister and the MLA for the riding where the Kearl mine is located, dismissed the most recent spill as a case of “muddy water from the surrounding area.”
The AER said it will work with Imperial to collect water samples to determine the leak’s impact on fish and wildlife.
At a Nov. 27 press conference, Chief Adam, flanked by the Alberta NDP’s two Indigenous MLAs — Jodi Calahoo Stonehouse and Brooks Arcand Paul — said the AER lacks credibility.
“At every opportunity the AER has diminished or dismissed all of our concerns,” Adam said, noting that the First Nation has been raising concerns about the impact of tar sands mining on the community’s health since 2007.
He added that the AER was “failing big time” in its role as a regulator.
“Their job is to inform the communities if there’s any harmful bacterias or chemicals that are in the ecosystem,” Adam said.
“We were supposed to be the first to be notified. It turns out we are the last to be notified.”
Adam called for the feds — namely the Department of Fisheries and Oceans — to intervene to get the AER to “immediately cease what they’re doing.”
“Everything that they’re pumping out is flawed,” he said of the AER. “They’re not credible enough to do anything.”
The chief was also critical of Alberta Health Services (AHS), which is in the process of being dismantled by the provincial government, and Health Canada for not taking action on Indigenous health concerns related to the oil sands.
In 2014, AHS conducted a study into higher than normal cancer rates in Fort Chipewyan. Despite finding elevated rates of cervical cancer, bile duct cancer and lung cancer, AHS concluded that “the total number of cancers and most types of cancers in the Fort Chipewyan area were the same as rates in the rest of Alberta.”
The federal government promised a review of the study, but it hasn’t been completed almost a decade later.
Calahoo Stonehouse, the NDP’s climate, parks and climate resilience critic, blamed the UCP as much as the AER for the way these spills have been handled.
“It’s their responsibility as the government and as the energy regulator to ensure that industry is being upheld to the legal standard and that they are fulfilling their responsibilities,” said Calahoo Stonehouse, a member of the Michel First Nation.
A provincial government-commissioned AER review underway is being led by David Yager, a UCP loyalist with close ties to Premier Danielle Smith, who received a $70,000 sole-source contract to lead the review.
Calahoo Stonehouse said this review needs to have “public oversight.”
“We need to ensure that the water levels are safe, that communities are consulted, that members are notified when there is a leak immediately and that all is done to ensure the safety of the land, the water and the people,” she said, “which is evident that is not currently happening.”
This issue isn’t exclusive to Imperial Oil nor the Kearl mine.
The AER has approved the expansion of Suncor’s Fort Hills mine into the McClelland Lake Wetland Complex, which includes sensitive, carbon-capturing peatland, recently rejecting the Alberta Wilderness Association’s (AWA) proposal to reconsider its approval.
According to the AER, Suncor originally told the regulator that 662,000 litres of runoff from a containment pond leaked. But on Nov. 24, the day after it rejected the AWA’s attempt for the mine’s expansion to be reconsidered, Suncor informed the AER that the figure was closer to 10 million litres, and might have been released as early as June 2022.
In April 2023, Suncor reported a leak of six million litres from a Fort Hills sedimentation pond into the Athabasca River. While Suncor said it informed northern Alberta First Nations of the spill, the Alberta government neglected to inform the Northwest Territories government, which it’s required to do under a water-sharing agreement.