By Jeremy Appel, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter
(ANNews) – Indigenous climate advocates are harshly criticizing an Alberta Energy Regulator (AER) report into Imperial Oil’s Kearl mine leaking 5.4 million tonnes of contaminated water, which concluded that the oil company followed all required regulations, even after it failed to notify members of the downstream First Nations.
While it was initially reported that the AER concealed the leakage from Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation and Mikisew Cree Nation for almost a year until contaminated water surfaced in February 2023, the regulator knew about the leakage for years prior, according to reporting from The Canadian Press.
Groundwater reports Imperial submitted to the AER in 2020 and 2021 acknowledge that tailings were seeping from the ponds intended to contain them.
In May 2022, the First Nations were first informed that discoloured water had surfaced from the pond, but Indigenous leaders were then kept out of the loop until February, when the AER issued an environmental protection order against Imperial after 5.4 million tonnes of toxic water escaped from the pond.
Mandy Olsgard, an environmental toxicologist who worked with nearby First Nations, said the regulator would have known about the seepage since 2019. “They knew there was seepage to groundwater,” said Olsgard, adding that the AER and Imperial decided to “just manage it internally,” rather than notify the public.
The seepage continues, with hydrocarbon levels in test wells exceeding provincial guidelines, CP reported.
“There is no indication of adverse impacts to wildlife or fish populations in nearby river systems or risks to drinking water for local communities,” Imperial spokesperson Lisa Schmidt told CP.
An AER report said Imperial followed all existing rules in reporting the leak, but acknowledged the rules have major shortcomings.
Mikisew Chief Billy-Joe Tuccaro, who has called for a stop-work order at the Kearl site, said he has no reason to trust Imperial or the AER.
“They say they have contained the seepage. They have not. The fact that they did not tell us about the seepage for nine months is the tip of the iceberg,” he told CP.
A statement from Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation, which has called on the federal government to intervene, expressed similar doubts about the AER’s integrity.
“We do not believe that the Kearl leak was an isolated incident, and we do not believe the regulator would inform the public if another incident occurred,” the band told CP.
Indigenous Climate Action (ICA) issued a blistering Sept. 27 news release decrying a lack of accountability from the AER.
“They don’t live there, they don’t drink the water. Oil and gas groups have spent millions, if not billions, aiming to weaken policies so they can continue to get away with destroying our planet. Their only interests are their bottom lines—our community and our rights mean nothing to them,” said ICA executive director and Athabasca Chipewyan member Eriel Tchekwie Deranger.
“They don’t live there, they don’t drink the water. Their only interests are their bottom lines—our community and our rights mean nothing to them.”
Deranger added that the AER’s conclusions “are unfortunately not surprising.”
“It only affirms that spills, leaks and overflows are considered acceptable and normal within the Canadian colonial system,” Deranger said. “Standard ‘business as usual’ holds no consequences for industry. It’s the land, waterways and the people that are expected to shoulder the consequences for them.”
The release noted that the AER report came days before the annual Day for Truth and Reconciliation across Canada.
“We can’t truly work toward reconciliation until the whole truth is told about the oppressive colonial systems and practices that caused, and continue to cause, harm to our lands, waterways and rights of our peoples,” said ICA engagement manager Jamie Bourque-Blyan, a member of Buffalo Lake Metis Settlement.
“We can’t truly work toward reconciliation until the whole truth is told about the oppressive colonial systems and practices that caused, and continue to cause, harm to our lands, waterways and rights of our peoples.”
She called the Kearl spill, and ensuing coverup, just “one example of these harms,” with Athabasca Chipewyan and Mikisew Cree nations “left in the dark about the tailings breach and increase in toxic chemicals in the waterways and environment often used to practice inherent Indigenous and treaty rights, including those of harvesting foods and medicine, and practicing land-based ceremonies.”
The report also came a week after the UN Climate Ambition Summit in New York, where Prime Minister Justin Trudeau promised to “build a cleaner and more prosperous future for all.”
Despite his rhetoric, Trudeau continues “to miss the mark when it comes to upholding human rights, including Indigenous rights,” said ICA digital media coordinator Katie Wilson, a member of Peguis First Nation.
“Not once did Trudeau mention Indigenous rights in his address last week and this report from the AER further demonstrates the sincere lack of interest by colonial governments in upholding Truth and Reconciliation, as long as it impacts industry wealth,” Wilson added.