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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. The affected area is next to a small fish-bearing lake and tributaries to the Firebag and Muskeg rivers.Nicholas Vardy/Supplied

A continuing leak at the Kearl oil sands project has left members of the nearby Mikisew Cree First Nation unwilling to drink or bathe in water from local waterways, fearing contamination from seepage that has lasted close to a year.

Ottawa agreed Wednesday to cover the cost of bottled water and its delivery to the northern Alberta community of around 1,000 people, and says it is working with other First Nations in the region to ensure they have access to potable water.

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. The affected area is next to 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 when it was detected by Imperial Oil Resources Ltd. until months later, when a separate incident at Kearl in February spilled 5.3 million litres of industrial wastewater.

Alberta didn’t reveal Imperial Oil leak for months, says Environment and Climate Change Canada

The oil company, the Alberta Energy Regulator and the Alberta government say they have found no evidence of harm to fish or wildlife. But Mikisew Chief Billy-Joe Tuccaro said Wednesday in a statement that members of his First Nation won’t feel safe to bathe in the water or drink it, nor eat fish from local waterways until they have proof that it is not contaminated with toxic tailings.

“We have lost all trust,” he said. “The days of taking people at their word are gone.”

Imperial Oil said in a statement posted on its website Wednesday night that it is providing drinking water to communities that have requested it “for emergency back-up purposes,” including a shipment to Fort Chipewyan this week.

The oil company added that its “extensive surface water monitoring to date shows no evidence to suggest that local drinking water supplies have been compromised.”

The surrounding Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo stopped drawing reservoir water from Lake Athabasca on Feb. 27 to complete testing specifically looking for contaminants that may have been released from Kearl. It said by e-mail that results received this week confirm that water being produced at the region’s Fort Chipewyan Water Treatment Plant meets all Canadian drinking water standards and requirements.

However, the intake remains closed for now as the municipality works with drinking water specialists at Alberta Environment to finalize a lake intake operation and monitoring plan. Wood Buffalo is also continuing with enhanced testing of the raw water diverted from the lake and monitoring of potable water for the community, and has requested increased monitoring by the province.

Indigenous Services Canada spokesperson Vincent Gauthier said the federal department continues to engage with First Nations, the Alberta government and Wood Buffalo to support transparency in water quality, and safety testing and reporting.

Ottawa told Imperial Oil last week to take immediate action at Kearl to contain the leak of toxic tailings and tainted water, after testing by Environment and Climate Change Canada found a substance harmful to fish.

Mikisew and nearby Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation expressed profound concern over the Environment Department’s findings. Mr. Tuccaro said it’s particularly alarming as members of his community begin the fishing season on Lake Athabasca.

Officials and elders from Athabasca Chipewyan recently visited Kearl to see the impact of the leak. The First Nation said in a statement that “the disaster is ongoing, and the toxic tailings are visible on the land, adjacent to ponds, tributaries, and creeks.”

Chief Allan Adam called it “further evidence that the [provincial] regulator has lost all credibility,” adding the federal government should use all legal tools at its disposal to take control of the investigation and cleanup.

Federal Environment Minister Steven Guilbeault met with his Alberta counterpart Sonya Savage this week to discuss Kearl. He emphasized that Imperial Oil’s own stated failures of communication were unacceptable and raised broader concerns regarding the efficacy of existing notification systems in the province.

Alberta Environment officials have conducted independent water sampling at Kearl and Lake Athabasca, as well as locations downstream. The Oil Sands Monitoring Program is also enhancing its regular tributary monitoring programs. Ms. Savage said the Alberta government has not seen any evidence of waterbody or drinking water contamination as a result of the incidents.

With a report from Marieke Walsh in Ottawa

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