Imperial Oil Resources Ltd. and the Alberta Energy Regulator have been asked to testify at the House of Commons environment committee over how they have handled the continuing leak of tailings from the Kearl oil sands site.
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.
A motion by Liberal MP Patrick Weiler on Monday to have Imperial Oil chief executive officer Brad Corson and AER head Laurie Pushor testify was passed unanimously by the committee.
Leaders from Indigenous communities affected by the leak, government officials from the Northwest Territories and representatives from Environment and Climate Change Canada will also be invited.
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Mr. Weiler told The Globe and Mail in an interview the committee will focus on what went wrong and why the company and regulator failed to communicate adequately, while federal ministers will examine next steps to ensure the oversight and communication failures surrounding the Kearl leak cannot be repeated.
“There’s so much that we don’t know,” Mr. Weiler said, pointing to a dearth of communication from both Imperial Oil and the AER. “It really erodes the trust over all in how we manage the oil sands sector in Alberta, and in Canada more broadly.”
The AER said in an e-mail that it is waiting on more information before it responds to the committee’s request. Imperial Oil said it would “respond through appropriate channels” after it receives an official invitation.
Almost 10 months after the seeping began at the tailings pond, Mr. Weiler said that by this point both Imperial Oil and the AER should know how much toxic waste has leaked. If they don’t, he said, that raises even more questions.
Environment and Climate Change Canada spokesperson Nicole Allen said the oil company anticipates being able to make a rough estimate of the volume of the leak once it installs long-term recovery apparatuses such as surface pumps or collection wells. She directed further questions to Imperial Oil, which did not return a request for comment on how much has leaked from the tailings pond.
Alberta NDP MP Heather McPherson said in the House of Commons Monday that she is “horrified and outraged” by the leak. She criticized the provincial disclosure failures but also said Ottawa held responsibility and questioned how it can be trusted to protect the environment.
In response to the Kearl incidents, Environment Minister Steven Guilbeault has proposed a joint federal-provincial working group with participation from Indigenous groups and oil companies to improve notification tools for environmental emergencies.
Mr. Guilbeault told reporters in Ottawa Monday that the mandate for such a working group is not yet finalized, but it would meet on a regular basis “to give information in a transparent manner to all parties involved and discuss remediation and containment plans.”
“The system we have in place is failing,” he said.
“We’re taking steps to ensure the immediate risk is addressed and that we are facilitating a process that rebuilds trust with Indigenous communities.”
Alberta Environment Minister Sonya Savage told reporters an oil sands working group is “long overdue.” She would also like it to tackle the long-term issue of reclamation and liability management, and said a working group would look at a range of solutions.
Meanwhile, Chief Billy-Joe Tuccaro from one of the affected communities – Mikisew Cree First Nation, which is downstream from Kearl – wrote to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau over the weekend with a range of requests to address what he says is a crisis in his community.
Those include taking action on health risks, a federal-Indigenous audit of risks for all oil sands tailings facilities, support for enhanced Indigenous-led monitoring and training, and identifying real solutions to tailings management.
Mr. Guilbeault said Monday that the federal Liberal government agrees with many of the requests, but said they needed to be looked at in detail to determine what Ottawa’s role should be.
“We are working with Indigenous nations on a long-term solution to the tailings ponds. The idea that we can simply continue to park large quantities of toxic water in these giant ponds is not a long-term solution,” he said.