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The Alberta Energy Regulator should be dismantled and the federal government should take over the investigation into a continuing tailings pond leak at the Kearl oil sands project, say Indigenous leaders whose communities have been affected by the seepage.

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, including next to a small fish-bearing lake and tributaries to the Firebag and Muskeg rivers. The federal government, local Indigenous communities and the public at large were not informed of the leak until months afterward, when a separate incident at Kearl spilled 5.3 million litres of wastewater.

Representatives from six First Nation and Métis communities downstream from Kearl appeared before the House of Commons environment committee on Monday.

They detailed how the leak has affected the environment, their way of life, and their relationship with both the AER and Imperial Oil Resources Ltd.

Over the course of two hours, the picture that emerged was one of worry: About potential contamination in a cup of coffee made from local water; about eating meat harvested from the region; about whether kids can safely swim and play in lakes come summer.

Woven throughout most of the testimonies was a distrust of Imperial Oil, the AER and the provincial and federal governments, culminating in a call to overhaul Alberta’s regulator – or replace it altogether.

“We live in a rule-based society,” said Martin Grygar, representing the Fort McMurray 468 First Nation.

“However, the recent incident at Imperial Oil’s Kearl plant has shown that the oil sand operators, regulatory bodies and governments continue to behave inappropriately and value self-interest groups versus trust and transparency.”

The way AER has handled the leak at Kearl has also eroded the community’s confidence in Alberta’s regulatory regime and how the agency protects Indigenous rights, Mr. Grygar said.

Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation Chief Allan Adam was more blunt, calling the AER “a complete joke.”

“Canadians expect that this industry will properly regulate. I’m here to tell you that is not true,” he said.

Mr. Adam said the federal government should use all legal tools it has available to take control of the Kearl investigation and cleanup from the AER, and undertake a comprehensive inspection of the structural integrity of tailings ponds across the oil sands.

“We need a credible, viable audit of every tailings pond in order to restore basic trust,” he said.

Mr. Adam said his faith in the AER and, by extension, the Alberta government has been broken, adding “it is clear that they cannot be trusted to oversee this mess.”

After the meeting, Mr. Adam told media that the AER should be completely dismantled. Instead, communities downstream from major developments should “set up their own panel and hear industry and why they want to come do the activities on their lands.”

Imperial Oil said in an e-mail it takes the situation at Kearl seriously and is taking steps to correct the issues to ensure they do not happen again.

“We continue to engage directly with Indigenous community leaders and other community members to answer questions, provide information and begin to rebuild trust,” it said.

The Alberta government did not answer whether, in the face of comments made at Monday’s committee, it would dismantle the AER or re-examine its role. However, Miguel Racin, the press secretary for Environment Minister Sonya Savage, said, “We’ve committed to taking a step back to say: What are the processes? Were they followed? And do we need to enhance them?”

He said the department continues to resample and analyze water testing results and share information with nearby communities and the public, and is planning high-frequency monitoring during the spring melt.

AER chief executive Laurie Pushor said in a statement Monday that the regulator “listened thoughtfully” to the testimony given at the committee, but did not respond directly to Mr. Adam’s comments.

The regulator said it has reached out to all oil sands operators to ensure effective controls are in place to prevent and detect any industrial wastewater releases. “At this time and based on our preliminary review, no issues have been identified. Additionally, we have examined other sites in the past year through reports and inspections and will do so again this year,” it said.

Mr. Pushor will appear before the committee on April 24 to answer questions about how the regulator has handled the continuing tailings leak. Imperial Oil CEO Brad Corson will appear this Thursday, along with the company’s senior vice-president for its upstream business and its environment, regulatory and socioeconomics manager.

Federal Environment Minister Steven Guilbeault said Monday in a statement: “We hear loud and clear the concerns being expressed by Indigenous communities regarding the management of the tailings and their potential impacts on their local environment and communities.”

To that end, Ottawa will create a working group to monitor notification and monitoring in the oil sands, including representatives from federal and provincial governments, Indigenous nations, the Government of Northwest Territories and oil sands companies.

Mr. Guilbeault sent letters to First Nations and Métis communities on Monday, and said the group’s mandate would be established with their input over the next two months.

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