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Mining operations at the Kearl Oil Sands project, belonging to Imperial Oil Ltd., near Fort McMurray, Ab. on June 13, 2017. Last month, a drainage pond at the site overflowed, spilling an estimated 5.3 million litres of industrial wastewater laced with pollutants into the environment.Larry MacDougal/The Canadian Press

For almost a year, water tainted with dangerous levels of arsenic, dissolved metals and hydrocarbons has been seeping from tailings at the Kearl oil sands project in Alberta’s north, soaking into muskeg, public lands and waterways that are home to wildlife and fish.

Then, last month, a drainage pond at the site overflowed, spilling an estimated 5.3 million litres of industrial wastewater laced with pollutants into the environment.

But a local Indigenous community downstream from the site says it was kept in the dark until then.

Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation Chief Allan Adam told The Globe and Mail that neither the oil company responsible for the leak nor Alberta’s energy regulator notified him or his council of the extent of the problem, until after the pond overflowed in February onto Crown lands in the remote area about 70 kilometres north of Fort McMurray.

The Alberta Energy Regulator (AER) has slapped Imperial Oil Resources Ltd. IMO-T with a non-compliance order and an environmental protection order over the incidents, and told the Calgary-based company to submit plans for containment, monitoring and remediation of the land and waterways.

Meanwhile, Athabasca Chipewyan leadership has warned its community members not to consume any game, fish or plants harvested from the land or water in the area after May of 2022, lest it be contaminated. A notice issued by the chief and council this weekend further advised people to avoid the area until testing can determine the extent of the environmental impact.

The First Nation is now considering legal action against the company and the regulator over the contamination, which has left its members unable to exercise their treaty rights to hunt and fish on traditional lands.

Mr. Adam wants the AER to “shut down Imperial until they fix this whole problem.”

The frustration he said he feels comes not just from the fact that nobody told Athabasca Chipewyan how severe the problem is, but that he believes Imperial Oil breached a benefit agreement contract it signed with the community. The company is supposed to keep the First Nation informed of environmental incidents, he said, and it failed.

Oil seepage sites

External

tailings

area

Plant

site

North

pit

Kearl Oil Sands Project

Marguerite

River

Wildland

0

15

KM

Kearl Oil Sands

ALBERTA

DETAIL

63

B.C.

Alta.

Sask.

Fort McMurray

THE GLOBE AND MAIL, SOURCE: TILEZEN; OPENSTREETMAP CONTRIBUTORS;

google; acee; imperial oil documents

Oil seepage sites

External

tailings

area

Plant

site

North

pit

Kearl Oil Sands Project

Marguerite

River

Wildland

0

15

KM

Kearl Oil Sands

ALBERTA

DETAIL

63

B.C.

Alta.

Sask.

Fort McMurray

THE GLOBE AND MAIL, SOURCE: TILEZEN; OPENSTREETMAP CONTRIBUTORS;

google; acee; imperial oil documents

Oil seepage sites

External

tailings

area

Plant

site

North

pit

Kearl Oil Sands Project

Marguerite

River

Wildland

0

15

KM

Kearl Oil Sands

ALBERTA

DETAIL

63

B.C.

Alta.

Sask.

Fort McMurray

THE GLOBE AND MAIL, SOURCE: TILEZEN; OPENSTREETMAP CONTRIBUTORS;

google; acee; imperial oil documents

Records from the First Nation indicate that the only notice it received from Imperial Oil about the seepage was on May 19, 2022. It said that the company had found discoloured surface water and vegetation to the north and northeast of the Kearl oil sands site.

There was never any follow-up, Mr. Adam said, despite months of regular contact between Imperial Oil and the AER about the incident.

Imperial Oil documents obtained by The Globe note three meetings between the regulator and oil company between July and November. During that time, Imperial Oil confirmed that the water exceeded environmental guidelines for various pollutants including dissolved iron, arsenic, hydrocarbons and sulphate. It also submitted various updates to the regulator, began weekly monitoring of the seepage sites and was issued with a non-compliance order by the AER.

Yet “nobody told us anything,” Mr. Adam said. “Why weren’t we informed?”

The regulator said in an e-mail that it is mindful of the First Nation’s concerns, but it noted “it is the licensee’s responsibility to inform affected parties.”

The Globe twice asked Imperial Oil whether it had contacted Athabasca Chipewyan at any point during the continuing seepage, and whether it was in breach of a community benefit agreement or had a duty under its own reconciliation goals to keep the First Nation in the loop about the incident. The company didn’t answer those questions.

Water leaking into the environment around Kearl is from its tailings area, according to the AER’s environmental protection order against Imperial Oil. It’s seeping through a fill layer placed there during construction, then mixing with shallow groundwater and coming to the surface at various sites.

The oil company told The Globe in an e-mail that it’s still trying to determine the exact cause of the water issues, but they are related to gaps within the seepage interception system.

A joint federal-provincial regulatory panel review of the project in 2007 foretold the possibility of such an incident.

Imperial Oil warned at the time that the ground on which tailings ponds were to be built was permeable, and its understanding of the underlying surface was not yet complete. It would need to capture seepage from tailings ponds “to maintain acceptable water quality levels,” it said.

The panel agreed that the porous nature of the land meant wastewater from tailings ponds could well affect the Firebag River to the north, and its three tributaries, degrading water quality. But it approved the project subject to 17 conditions including tailings and reclamation management.

Jamie Long, Imperial Oil’s vice-president of oil sands mining, said in an e-mailed statement that the company regretted the seepage and spill and is trying to learn from them to prevent them from happening again. He added that Imperial Oil will put additional mitigation measures in place ahead of spring melt while it implements longer-term plans.

The company has installed additional monitoring and pumping wells and started work to build drain structures in the area. It says there has been no measurable impact to local waterways or reported impact to wildlife, according to its monitoring.

The regulator said in an e-mail it takes its responsibilities in relation to oil sands mining seriously. And while companies not in compliance with AER requirements may be subject to enforcement actions, it said, it would not provide further details as the matter is still under investigation.

Environment and Climate Change Canada said enforcement officers have conducted an on-site inspection at Kearl and collected samples to investigate the incidents.