Ottawa has told Imperial Oil Resources Ltd. IMO-T to take immediate action at its Kearl oil sands site and contain the seepage of toxic tailings-tainted water that it says is harmful to fish.
The federal government, local Indigenous communities and the public at large were not informed of the leak last May until months afterward, when a separate incident at Kearl spilled 5.3 million litres of 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, including next to a small fish-bearing lake and tributaries to the Firebag and Muskeg rivers.
Environment and Climate Change Canada (ECCC) said Monday that its testing shows the water is harmful to fish. The statement from the federal department said Imperial Oil was slapped with a Fisheries Act Direction on Friday. ECCC told Imperial Oil it must move promptly to contain the seepage and prevent it from entering the fish-bearing water.
Federal officials will return to the site in the coming days to monitor the Calgary-based company’s response.
Imperial Oil first informed the Alberta Energy Regulator about the leak just north of the Kearl site in May. The provincial regulator was supposed to notify the federal government within 24 hours, but ECCC didn’t find out until it had been going on for nine months. Nor was it told about a February spill, in which millions of litres of polluted water spilled from a drainage pond at Kearl north of Fort McMurray.
Both came to ECCC’s attention after the Alberta regulator issued an environmental protection order against Imperial Oil, and posted it online on Feb. 7.
Imperial Oil said in an e-mail Monday that it has installed surface water pumps in the area to prevent the seep from entering the waterbody, adding that monitoring to date “indicates there has been no change in baseline conditions.” The company said it plans to collect the fish from the lake “as a precaution and install a fish barrier to prevent migration.”
Imperial Oil, the Alberta Energy Regulator and the Alberta government say no tainted water has made it into waterbodies or river tributaries.
The regulator has not answered multiple questions from The Globe and Mail about when it first notified the federal government about the continuing seepage at Kearl, which has leaked an unknown volume of contaminated water into the environment, but said in a statement on its website it is “committed to transparency.”
Federal Environment Minister Steven Guilbeault said Thursday it was “very worrisome” that the Alberta regulator didn’t communicate with ECCC for more than half a year.
“We can’t investigate what we don’t know,” he said.
In an interview, federal NDP MP and environment critic Laurel Collins questioned Ottawa’s commitment to managing tailings ponds, because Liberal MPs were among those who voted to remove the toxic-material storage sites from an update to the Canadian Environmental Protection Act. It would have allowed the federal government to pro-actively request information on the sites.
“Ideally, we would have a government that pro-actively ensures that the leaks don’t happen,” Ms. Collins said. Given the potential human health impacts, she said the government needs to overhaul oversight systems to ensure it’s not possible to obscure leaks and that there are meaningful repercussions when there’s a breach.
Meanwhile, environment ministers from Alberta and the Northwest Territories met Thursday to discuss a bilateral water agreement that the territory says Alberta breached by withholding information about the Kearl incidents.
Northwest Territories Environment and Natural Resources Minister Shane Thompson told the NWT Legislature on Tuesday that the government triggered the accord’s dispute mechanism for the first time “because of the severity of this spill” and the failure to disclose.
The territory ultimately wants an independent investigator to look at the issue.
Alberta Energy Minister Peter Guthrie said in an interview last week that the incidents at Kearl were “unfortunate” and that the design of the tailings pond “perhaps was not quite where it needed to be.”
“But I think that the process itself is working and that we will get to a resolution here,” he added.
Alberta’s Opposition NDP Indigenous Relations critic, Richard Feehan, argued that the problems have not only risked the health of nearby communities, but done “serious damage to our reputation as a transparently regulated destination for investors.”
“Albertans and First Nations deserve answers about how this happened, how they were not notified for nine months, and under what timelines it will be cleaned up,” he said in an e-mail.