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Demonstrators gather in Ottawa on April 20 to rally against Imperial Oil’s tailings pond leak. Tainted water has been seeping off the Kearl project onto Crown lands north of Fort McMurray, Alta., since May.BLAIR GABLE/Reuters

The head of the Alberta Energy Regulator declined to answer basic questions about a continuing leak at Imperial Oil’s IMO-T Kearl oil sands site on Monday, as a Liberal MP on the House of Commons environment committee suggested the provincial agency was part of a cover-up.

Chief executive officer Laurie Pushor repeatedly deflected questions from MPs about who knew what, and when, saying that information would form part of an independent investigation into AER’s handling of Kearl and as such he did not want to comment in advance.

Water tainted with dangerous levels of arsenic, dissolved metals and hydrocarbons has been seeping off the Kearl project onto Crown lands north of Fort McMurray, Alta., since May. Some of the runoff has been near a small fish-bearing lake, as well as tributaries to the Firebag and Muskeg rivers.

The federal government, Indigenous communities and the public were not informed of the leak until months afterward, when a separate incident at Kearl in February spilled 5.3 million litres of wastewater.

Monday marked the first time Mr. Pushor has spoken publicly about what has happened at Kearl. His appearance follows past testimony from Imperial Oil and the Indigenous communities living downstream from the site.

Almost a year after the issues were detected, Mr. Pushor’s lack of answers had a cold reception from MPs. Northwest Territories Liberal MP Michael McLeod tabled a motion at the end of the meeting to call the AER and Imperial Oil back to the committee in October to provide more information and an update.

The AER’s response to the Imperial leak has spurred a series of investigations, including a probe launched last month by Alberta’s information and privacy watchdog over whether the regulator had a legal obligation to disclose information about the leak. The AER board has also commissioned a third-party review into the regulator’s response to both Kearl incidents.

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Leaders from Indigenous communities testified last week that their trust in the regulator has been so decimated that the AER should be dismantled.

“I don’t think we just have a communications problem here, we might have a cover-up problem,” B.C. Liberal MP Patrick Weiler said to Mr. Pushor.

The AER CEO did not explain to the committee why the regulator did not alert the federal government about the seeping tailings pond. Speaking to reporters afterward, he declined to say whether he believed the AER had failed to follow the proper notification protocols. Instead, he said the “best place” to get answers is through the independent review.

Given the breakdown in trust, MPs on the committee asked Mr. Pushor to testify under oath. He agreed, but committee members were regularly frustrated by the level of information he could provide.

For example, he told the committee he personally informed the Alberta government about the incidents at Kearl in February, but would not say when the regulator first told the province about the issues.

He later told reporters that information will come out through the independent review.

The failure to disclose that detail is all the more problematic because it means Albertans will go to the polls in May without all the information, said Alberta NDP MP Heather McPherson. Imperial Oil has created a public-health and environmental crisis, she added, and “Albertans have the right to know the full truth.”

In the wake of more reported incidents in the oil sands over the past week, including the discovery on Friday of dozens of dead birds at a tailings pond just north of the Suncor Base Mine site, Mr. Weiler asked whether the regulator is doing enough to protect the public and the environment.

Mr. Pushor said the AER has an extensive oversight program, but that safeguards are “first and foremost” the responsibility of the operators.

“First Nations leaders and other community leaders have made it very clear that they expect more communication and they expect more effective communication,” Mr. Pushor said, without going so far as to promise if and when the AER will make changes.

“Continually coming forward and saying we’re going to do better without actually doing better is not particularly helpful,” Ms. McPherson told Mr. Pushor in committee.

He did not directly address her critique but defended the organization, saying that it has directed Imperial Oil to do more groundwater monitoring and that containment efforts are under way.

Once the AER understood what was happening at Kearl, it instructed all oil sands mines to assess their facilities and determine whether any other tailings are seeping into the environment, Mr. Pushor said, adding that the AER is currently reviewing that information.

After the committee, Mr. Weiler told The Globe he is skeptical that the accountability processes now taking place will be successful.

“We are left with a lot of important questions unanswered, and left to hope that an investigation commissioned by a regulator that has no credibility will be able to provide public answers on it. And left to hope that the mea culpa from Imperial and AER will lead to remedial action to improve matters,” he said.

The committee has not yet voted on whether to invite the AER and Imperial Oil back to testify in the fall.

Follow Emma Graney on Twitter: @EmmaLGraneyOpens in a new window
Follow Marieke Walsh on Twitter: @mariekewalshOpens in a new window

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