Alberta’s information and privacy commissioner (OIPC) launched an investigation Wednesday into the Alberta Energy Regulator’s communication about the tailings pond leak at Imperial’s Kearl project in the oilsands.
Privacy commissioner Diane McLeod will examine “whether AER had an obligation under Section 32 of the Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act (FOIP) to disclose information to the public or others about the leak.”
A request for the OIPC to investigate was made by an Alberta lawyer in early March.
Area First Nations and the Northwest Territories government have said they should have been kept in the loop on the spills from Imperial’s Kearl mine tailings ponds.
Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation, which is downstream from the spill, said in a statement Tuesday that its representatives were recently able to access the spill site on the north side of the Kearl tailings pond.
“What we observed was worse than what anyone anticipated,” the First Nation said.
It said representatives saw toxic water still on the ground in an unfenced, uncontained area beside streams and ponds.
It said it also saw animal tracks in and out of the area, tailings puddles and no barriers between seepage and water bodies.
“We won’t stop until we have a full accounting of this catastrophe. We are not going away,” said Chief Allan Adam.
Global News has reached out to the province for a response to the First Nation’s statement. This article will be updated if and when a response is received.
The Northwest Territories has called it a violation of its agreement with Alberta for timely updates on emerging threats to their shared watershed.
The first wastewater release was spotted and reported in May as discoloured water near a tailings pond at the Kearl site north of Fort McMurray.
It was found to be tailings seepage and no further updates were provided to area First Nations until February when it was disclosed to the public and federal and provincial environment ministers along with news of a second release of 5.3 million litres of tailings.
Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation told Global News that Imperial is hosting a community meeting Wednesday at 6 p.m. at Mamawi Hall in Fort Chipewyan.
“Our team will be on site to answer questions from the community,” said Imperial spokesperson Lisa Schmidt. “We appreciate the opportunity to begin to rebuild trust, share directly with community members and get their feedback.”
In its latest update, posted online March 19, Imperial said there are nearly 200 people working on remediation and related activities at the Kearl site. The company said all seven Indigenous communities have been invited to tour the site and do independent water testing.
“Imperial’s current monitoring and water sampling data has been stable and shows no impacts to local waterways or drinking water,” the company stated March 19. “There continues to be no indication of impacts to wildlife or fish.”
Imperial said it conducted wildlife monitoring and installed additional fencing at inactive work areas to prevent potential access.
The company also said it did “notify communities at the time of both incidents in May 2022 and February 2023. We deeply regret communications during our investigations into the May incident were not regularly provided to communities.”
In a statement shared on its website, the OIPC said the investigation will look at:
- After learning about the substance release(s) from Imperial, did AER have a duty under Section 32(1) to disclose information about a risk of significant harm to the environment or to the health and safety of the public, of the affected group of people, or of the person? Did AER have a duty under Section 32(1) to disclose information that is clearly in the public interest?
- If so, has AER fulfilled its Section 32 duty?
Premier Danielle Smith said the delay in public notification has illuminated the need for Alberta to ensure future alarms are sounded more quickly.
Smith said her government is working with the province’s oilsands regulator to develop better policies to give affected groups timely notification.
“Good practice and being a good neighbour (means) more communication is better,” Smith said Tuesday at an unrelated news conference in Mundare, Alta.
“That’s going to be our approach going forward. I’ve talked to the environment minister about that and the energy minister about that and the regulator about that.
“We’ll be working with the (Alberta Energy) Regulator to develop new processes to make sure that any time there is an incident that the comms are clear, that we have radical transparency and, just even as a courtesy, make sure any impacted party has a heads-up so they don’t have any fear based on the misinformation they see on social media or in the media.”
Earlier this week, federal Environment Minister Steven Guilbeault repeated his call for a stronger federal presence when it comes to environmental monitoring and communications in the oilsands in light of the Kearl seepages.
Guilbeault also repeated his plan for a new body with federal, provincial and First Nation members that would meet regularly to share information, especially on environmental emergencies. It would also discuss cleaning up tailings releases, how to keep the vast toxic ponds contained and long-term solutions for them.
Guilbeault said officials from Imperial and the Alberta Energy Regulator will be invited to appear before the House of Commons environment and sustainable development committee.
— With files from Bob Weber and Dean Bennett, The Canadian Press
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