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The Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation in Alberta, which is directly downstream from the Kearl oil sands, only learned of leaking from the site in the wake of a 5.3-million litre spill from a drainage pond on the same site last month.Nicholas Vardy/Handout

The Slave River flowing through Fort Smith, a small town that straddles the Alberta-Northwest Territories boundary, is being tested for contamination from toxic water seepage at an oil sands project 500 kilometres away.

Imperial Oil Resources Ltd. IMO-T, the Alberta Energy Regulator (AER) and the Alberta government all insist no contaminated water has entered any waterways, and therefore would not have travelled to their northern neighbours, but trust within the territory is running low.

The Fort Smith Métis Council has taken matters into its own hands.

Last week it began testing the Slave River for the arsenic, dissolved metals and hydrocarbons that have been leaking onto Crown lands since May from the Kearl oil sands project, owned by Imperial Oil. Testing has since widened to the Salt, Taltson and Little Buffalo rivers.

The environmental co-ordinator for the Fort Smith Métis Council, Jon McDonald, said in an interview Tuesday that testing equipment has been set up near the town’s boat launch, and that results would be shared directly with the community and the territory’s Department of Environment and Natural Resources.

Initial testing of the Slave River hasn’t uncovered any contaminants, he said, though more results are due later this week. Those will then be compared with samples taken prior to May to see whether anything has changed since the seepage was first reported to Alberta’s energy regulator.

“It’s sad, because our quality of life relies on the river,” Mr. McDonald said.

Imperial Oil admits communications on Alberta toxic leak fell short, says cleanup is under way

The Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation in Alberta is directly downstream from Kearl and was the first to call for transparency. It spent months in the dark about seepage from the project into the environment, even as Imperial Oil and the AER had multiple meetings about the issue. It was only told in the wake of a 5.3-million-litre spill from a drainage pond on the same site.

The Northwest Territories government has also enacted a dispute mechanism against the Alberta government over a bilateral water management agreement between the two jurisdictions, contending that Alberta breached the accord by withholding information from the territory.

The territory’s Environment and Natural Resources Minister, Shane Thompson, told The Globe and Mail that Alberta failed to notify his government about 10 months of seepage from Kearl, north of Fort McMurray, as well as the spill at the site in February.

“We weren’t advised, so I was not a happy camper,” he said Tuesday.

Alberta Premier Danielle Smith said Monday that the province’s duty to inform the Northwest Territories would only have been triggered if contaminated water had leaked into tributaries that made their way into a river and flowed north, which hadn’t happened.

She said it was “unfortunate” that nobody reached out, calling it a “misstep.”

Mr. Thompson countered that “it’s not a misstep, it was that they didn’t follow the contract or the agreement that we have in place.”

The agreement states that both parties shall, as early as practicable, exchange information about current and future events that might affect the ecological integrity of the aquatic ecosystem on the other side of the boundary.

A 10-month seepage of tainted water – let alone a 5.3-million-litre spill – constitutes such a risk, Mr. Thompson said.

“I’m very upset, P.O.’d, whatever you want to call it. I mean, we’ve been trying to work with them behind the scenes, collaboratively, saying, ‘We have this great trans-boundary agreement in place,’ but it’s only good if parties work with it. And they weren’t working with it,” he said.

Mr. Thompson said it’s “hard to believe” assurances from Imperial Oil, the regulator or the Alberta government that no tailings ended up in waterways, given the lack of information received by the territory.

“They’re saying things but we don’t see the evidence,” he said.

“We’re not just accepting Alberta’s word for it. We want our scientists to look at it because we’re downriver … so we need to know what’s going on.”

Imperial Oil reiterated Tuesday in an e-mail to The Globe that it has fallen short of communities’ expectations for transparency and communication, adding it was the company’s intention to share its findings when it had more definitively determined the cause and planned actions.

An environmental protection order issued to Imperial Oil by the AER in September stated that liquid from the spill and seepage “has caused, is causing, or may cause an adverse effect” on water bodies. The company said that seepage has not entered local waterways, according to its monitoring.

It also said it is expanding its seepage interception system and working to provide information to the Government of the Northwest Territories.