Lack of transparency angers communities affected by tailings leaks

Indigenous communities in the Athabasca watershed say communication about a massive spill and ongoing tailings leak at an Alberta oil sands mine has been inadequate. 

Since May 19 last year, industrial wastewater has been seeping out of a tailings pond at Imperial Oil’s Kearl oil sands project, about 70 km north of Fort McMurray.

For almost a year, the contaminated fluid has been leaking through a fill layer, mixing with groundwater and resurfacing near tributaries of the Muskeg and Firebag rivers, which feed into the Athabasca River.


The Athabasca River flows north and eventually joins Lake Athabasca and the Slave River, which crosses into the Northwest Territories.

On February 4, Imperial Oil, the site’s operator, reported another spill. An overflow at a drainage pond released an estimated 5.3 million litres of industrial wastewater into the environment – making it one of the province’s largest spills.

The Alberta Energy Regulator (AER) issued an environmental protection order on February 6, ordering the company to deal with the incidents.

But communities in both Alberta and the Northwest Territories say they were not notified of the leaks and argue that the information shared by regulators and the company leaves many questions unanswered.

Becky Kostka, lands manager for Smith’s Landing First Nation, said she first heard about the leaks in a Narwhal article published after the AER released its order. The First Nation is headquartered in Fort Smith and the community draws its drinking water from the Slave River.


“Smith’s Landing has had no official notification from any government agency on this,” Kostka said. “The most information I’ve actually received has been from the communities south of us.”

At the same time, Kostka said the news wasn’t all that surprising. Speaking on behalf of Chief Thaidene Paulette, she said: “This is a classic example of how Alberta interacts with First Nation communities downstream of the oil sands.”

Kostka isn’t alone in her disappointment and frustration.

Chief Allan Adam of the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation this week told the CBC that neither the company nor the regulator had notified his community of the severity of the problem until after the environmental protection order was issued – despite having several opportunities to share the information during meetings.


For Dan Stuckless, interim director of administration for the Fort McKay Métis Nation and previous director of the Métis Sustainability Centre in Fort McKay, disappointment stems from a lack of transparency rather than an outright lack of communication.

The location of Imperial Oil’s Kearl site, according to Google Maps.

Stuckless said the Métis Nation had been told about a breach at the Kearl site last spring, but it wasn’t until around the time the environmental protection order was issued that it became clear the leak was actually tailings water.

Initially, the community thought the leak was just a small breach of water that had touched the surface of the mine, Stuckless said. This water has to be contained on-site, and breaches of this kind are not uncommon in the spring, he said.

Last summer, a toxicologist employed by the Métis Nation asked Imperial Oil questions that would have helped identify whether the leak was tailings water, according to Stuckless, but those questions went unanswered.

“We’re not super happy with that,” he said.

“It’s not that they weren’t really truthful about the information,” he said, but they didn’t provide the clarity the community was looking for.

When Cabin Radio reached out to Imperial Oil for an interview, Lisa Schmidt, a spokesperson for the company, provided an emailed statement: “We regret these incidents and are making every effort to learn from it and apply preventative measures. We are providing updates to local communities and working to address any questions.”

However, Schmidt would not clarify which local communities the company is keeping updated.

An AER spokesperson said the regulator was not able to comment as the matter is a live investigation.

Concerns about impacts on people, wildlife

Communities in the Athabasca watershed have long expressed concern about the impacts of oil sands development.

A 2020 report also outlined evidence that tailings have been seeping into groundwater long before the recent leaks.

The incidents at the Kearl site add to an already heavily impacted watershed, said Melody Lepine, director of Mikisew Cree First Nation’s government and industry relations.

“This just mounts the concerns of downstream communities,” she said.

The recent leaks at the Kearl site raise questions about potential impacts on fish, waterfowl, traditional foods and human health, Lepine said.

“We’re starting to have a lot of questions, and we’re not really provided a lot of details,” she said. “That just makes things a lot more fearful, because we just don’t know what we’re dealing with at this point.”

The size of the area affected by the incidents and the total amount of wastewater released into the environment since last May are still unknown, as the Canadian Press reported last month.

According to Stuckless, it’s also still unclear how much of the contaminated water from the ongoing leak is confined to the affected wetland, and how much has been flushed downstream since last spring.

Water quality testing conducted by Imperial Oil and submitted to the AER in August found that the wastewater exceeds provincial and federal guidelines for contaminants such as iron, arsenic, hydrocarbons, sulphate and sulphide.

“Based on our monitoring to date, there are no reported impacts to wildlife and no measurable impact to local waterways,” said Imperial Oil’s Schmidt.

The company also says there is no indication that wastewater overflowing in February affected wildlife or vegetation.

“The released fluids are frozen and pose no risk to wildlife,” she said.

In Fort McKay, Stuckless said the spills don’t present a threat to the community’s drinking water supply, which is sourced upstream of the Kearl site. But he said there could be a risk for people who are taking water out of the river directly, whether they are boiling it or using it raw.

“I know some people will say you shouldn’t be taking raw water out of a river. Well, newsflash, that’s how people have used it for centuries,” he said.

In Fort Chipewyan, Kostka said the community has stopped withdrawing water from Lake Athabasca and switched to other water sources due to concerns about the leaks. She said she received a memo about the shift from the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo, which operates the water treatment plant in Fort Chipewyan.

“They haven’t found any evidence of contamination at the intake, but they are using their reserve ponds at this time,” Kostka said.

Because there haven’t been any signs of contamination in Lake Athabasca, Kostka suspects the impact on the Slave River is low. Nonetheless, the community is doing its own water testing on the Slave at Hay River and has asked the Town of Fort Smith to be extra diligent in testing the municipality’s water intake, she said.

The Slave River in winter near Fort Smith. Sarah Pruys/Cabin Radio

The immediate concern is drinking water, according to Kostka, but a longer-term concern is the potential impact on the food chain. The contaminated area hasn’t been fenced off, Kostka said, and the CBC reported moose tracks have been spotted going through it.

“Our community members are all going to be out moose hunting,” she said. “Are they going to be worried about eating animals that have been in contaminated wastewater?”

The full effects of the incidents will likely not be seen immediately.

“It’s not like you’re going to see birds dropping dead or animals dropping dead right away,” said Madelon Finkel, a recently retired professor of population health sciences at Weill Cornell Medicine, a New York City medical school, who has written about the health impacts of the oil sands. But she said tailings do present a risk of cancer as well as respiratory and neurological diseases.

Monitoring the health impacts of the spills on the population will be crucial, Finkel said.

Transparency and accountability

Kostka and Stuckless say communication about these incidents needs to improve – a request echoed on Thursday by Shane Thompson, the NWT’s environment minister.

“I was distressed to learn of these incidents second-hand. We were made aware of it from Indigenous governments in the area after a regional municipal government in Alberta reached out to them,” Thompson told the territory’s legislature.

“This violates the Bilateral Water Management Agreement with Alberta, which commits our governments to communicating quickly and transparently about issues which could affect shared waters. This lack of transparency and information-sharing from our Alberta partners is not an isolated incident, which increases our frustration in this matter.”

The territorial government has requested additional information from Alberta and will be “activating dispute resolution measures,” Thompson said.

He added that he has requested a meeting with Sonya Savage, his equivalent in Alberta, to ensure that the bilateral agreement is upheld.

A file photo of Shane Thompson in October 2019. Sarah Pruys/Cabin Radio
Shane Thompson. Sarah Pruys/Cabin Radio

Beyond the bilateral water management agreement, Kostka said the leaks are “a direct infringement upon treaty rights.”

Mikisew Cree First Nation’s Lepine said that if the company is continuing to release the wastewater, it needs to stop immediately.

Last month, the AER ordered Imperial Oil to come up with a plan to halt and clean up both the leak and the spill, as well as to communicate with the public. The company had previously submitted a cleanup plan in December, according to the AER’s environmental protection order, but the regulator stated that the plan wouldn’t allow for the work to be completed before the spring freshet.

The latest plan has yet to be released to the public. It is also supposed to include a strategy for the “humane euthanasia of impacted fish and wildlife.”

Having to come up with such a plan to deal with affected wildlife is not something that should happen, Kostka said. She wants to see those involved find out who is responsible.

Similarly, Stuckless said the Fort McKay Métis Nation will be looking to make sure someone is held accountable.

“It does look like a botched inspection and review,” he said of the AER’s work. The containment system at the site, which was approved by the regulator, appears to have had some design failures, he said.

“We’re hoping that those folks are dismissed from those positions,” he said.

Because the incidents affect fish and surface waters, they should also prompt a response from federal authorities – which Stuckless said have been quiet so far.

Environment and Climate Change Canada’s enforcement officers conducted an on-site inspection in order to collect information and samples, a spokesperson for the department told Cabin Radio via email. “As this is an active enforcement file, we are unable to comment further,” the spokesperson wrote.

According to Lepine, the regulatory response to the recent events doesn’t bolster confidence in plans to potentially release treated tailings in the future.

While the federal government is working to develop new regulations to possibly put more – albeit treated – wastewater into the environment, Lepine said existing regulations meant to stop tailings spills are being violated.

Overall, Stuckless said, Imperial has been one of the better oil sands operators over the years. He believes the company’s commitment to do better and to fix the issue is genuine.

“But there’s more at play than just the spill,” he said. There’s the lack of care and the regulation that goes with it, the delayed environmental protection order, and an overly friendly relationship between the operator and the regulator.

“I think we need to deal with that with open eyes,” he said.

This article is produced under a Creative Commons CC BY-ND 4.0 licence through the Wilfrid Laurier University Climate Change Journalism Fellowship.