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Demonstrators rally against Imperial Oil’s ongoing tailings pond leak, in downtown Ottawa, on April 20.BLAIR GABLE/Reuters

Imperial Oil Ltd. IMO-T says it still can’t say how much tainted water has leaked from a tailings pond at its Kearl oil sands project over the past 11 months, as MPs lambasted the company’s executives Thursday for an abject failure to look after affected communities.

Chief executive officer Brad Corson began his testimony before the House of Commons environment committee with a land acknowledgment, an apology and a promise to “do better.” But that wasn’t enough to head off MPs from every political party, who took Mr. Corson to task, accusing Imperial Oil of everything from hiding information and allowing Indigenous communities to live in fear to overseeing a continuing environmental disaster.

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 and tributaries to the Firebag and Muskeg rivers.

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

Mr. Corson and two other executives appeared at the environment committee Thursday to explain how they handled the leak and spill. Representatives from six First Nation and Métis communities downstream from Kearl also testified this week, telling the committee that the incidents have broken their trust in the company, the Alberta Energy Regulator and the provincial government.

Almost one year on, Imperial Oil still has no estimate of the volume of tailings-tainted water that has leaked into the environment. That’s because “there’s a lot of complexity in the calculation” to measure fluids on and under the surface, Mr. Corson said. Executives didn’t arrive with any details for the committee of how many toxic contaminants there are, nor their concentrations.

MPs focused much of their questions on why communities were kept in the dark by Imperial Oil for so long.

For example, Imperial Oil officials met with the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation environment management committee three times after the company discovered the leak – in July, September and November – but at no point did it raise the problem. Mr. Corson admitted the company’s “communication processes did fail.”

Alberta NDP MP Heather McPherson charged that the company was “clearly trying to hide information from Indigenous communities.”

“We have never been trying to hide any information. We were negligent in not sharing information,” Mr. Corson replied.

“We have lost a lot of trust and I recognize that creates skepticism for what we say,” he said, while asking the committee to judge Imperial Oil on its “actions going forward.”

Over two hours of questioning, he was unable to explain why the company failed to share the pertinent information for so long. Mr. Corson said the information is being shared now, and added that in the data the company has gathered, there was “nothing concerning in that data per se.”

Alberta Conservative MP Laila Goodridge said Imperial Oil’s failure to tell communities about the leak created a palpable fear among community members who didn’t know if their water was safe or if they could eat what they hunted and fished.

She also took Mr. Corson to task for the company’s disrespect to Indigenous communities when it failed to begin a recent town hall at Fort Chipewyan with a prayer or a land acknowledgment – which Mr. Corson admitted was “a mistake.”

Asked by Ms. Goodridge if anyone in the company faced disciplinary action as a result of the failures, Mr. Corson replied, “We haven’t been focused on internal blame and responsibility.” He added the company is conducting internal investigations.

MPs also questioned how Mr. Corson’s compensation could have doubled in the same year that its systems failed to prevent the leaks of toxic waste. Green Party Leader Elizabeth May suggested he give some of his $17.34-million pay to Greenpeace, which projected a “Charge Imperial Oil Now” message onto the Supreme Court of Canada building Wednesday night.

Mr. Corson refused to speak with journalists after the hearing and ignored questions as he walked away.

Ms. McPherson told reporters after the committee meeting that the executives’ testimony showed Imperial Oil thinks the matter amounts to a “communication disaster.”

“There’s no recognition, no acknowledgment that this was an environmental disaster and that the people of northern Alberta, they’re the ones that are suffering this disaster.”

Imperial Oil, the Alberta Energy Regulator and the Alberta government have said testing shows no sign of drinking water contamination. However, independent sampling commissioned by the regulator concluded last week that a small, fish-bearing lake at the northeastern edge of the Kearl site now contains levels of toxins that exceed government guidelines. The lake, which feeds into a tributary of the Firebag River, also contains naphthenic acids, which are formed from the breakdown of petrochemicals and are typically found in oil sands tailings.

Laurie Pushor, CEO of the regulator, will testify before the committee on Monday.

Mr. Corson confirmed that Imperial Oil would support being part of a working group proposed by Federal Environment Minister Steven Guilbeault that will aim to improve notification and monitoring in the oil sands. It is set to include representatives from federal and provincial governments, Indigenous nations, the Northwest Territories government and oil sands companies.

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