NWT and Alberta ministers to meet on Thursday over tailings spill

Last modified: March 8, 2023 at 5:24pm

NWT environment minister Shane Thompson will meet Alberta counterpart Sonya Savage on Thursday to discuss a massive spill and ongoing tailings leak at an oil sands mine.

The incidents at Imperial Oil’s Kearl Lake facility, north of Fort McMurray, have worried nearby Indigenous communities, as has the response from both Imperial Oil and an Alberta regulatory body.

The Alberta Energy Regulator, which holds responsibility for scrutinizing operations at Kearl Lake, is accused by some communities of failing to do its job.


Communities downstream of Kearl Lake have begun their own water testing, even though Alberta’s government insists no industrial wastewater has reached the Athabasca River leading north toward the NWT or its tributaries.

Alberta Premier Danielle Smith says that’s why her province was under no obligation to inform the NWT about the incidents under a transboundary water agreement between the two. Instead, Smith has blamed Imperial Oil for failing to properly communicate the spill and leak.

But Thompson and the NWT government say Smith is wrong and Alberta has made a significant error – a message Thompson will take to Savage on Thursday.

At that meeting, the NWT will seek to take the first steps in a dispute resolution process built into the transboundary agreement.

“This is the first time it’s being used,” Thompson said of that dispute resolution mechanism as he took questions from MLAs on Tuesday.


“Because of the severity of this spill and them not telling us information that we needed, we’ve implemented this.”

Asked about Smith’s remarks, he replied: “I know what the Premier of Alberta said. We don’t have an agreement with the industry. We have an agreement with the Government of Alberta, and I’ve made that very clear. It is with them. They need to be sharing this information.”

The NWT government disagrees with Alberta’s assertion that no material from the spills – which includes the likes of arsenic, dissolved heavy metals and hydrocarbons – could have made it into the Athabasca or its tributaries and then farther north.

A still of the Kearl Lake facility from a video shared by Imperial Oil
A still of the Kearl Lake facility from a video shared by Imperial Oil.

“With seepage, that’s hard to ascertain,” said Erin Kelly, deputy minister of the Department of Environment and Natural Resources, briefing MLAs in the legislature as part of what should have been an examination of the territorial government’s proposed 2023-24 budget.


“With spring melt runoff, there is a likelihood that some of that could potentially get into tributaries. So it’s not up to the company itself to report to the GNWT, and we don’t always have access to spill reports in other jurisdictions. It is written into the agreement that the Government of Alberta will notify us of these spills,” Kelly said.

“To be honest with you, they’ve done a fairly good job of notifying us of some of the other spills that have happened in certain basins. This one, obviously not.”

Secrecy over broader tailings proposal

Widespread criticism of both Imperial Oil and the Alberta government for their handling of the spills comes at a time of heightened concern about broader plans to allow treated oil sands tailings water to be released into rivers.

The Alberta and federal governments are reported to be drawing up regulations that would allow treated tailings to be discharged into river systems that ultimately flow into the NWT. The territorial government says it opposes the plan “unless rigorous science demonstrates a safe way to do it,” while some scientists have said not enough data exists to know for sure how releasing the tailings would affect environmental and human health.

Little has been made public about what, exactly, is being proposed. The NWT government said this week that discussions are ongoing but confidential.

Kelly said the only way the territory could gain access to the conversation between Alberta and Ottawa was to agree to keep all of the information, and its own responses, confidential.

“We’ve expressed to them the need to make sure that this information becomes public and that Indigenous governments are aware of the findings,” she said.

“They have said that they will work with us, and understand that needs to happen once the review process has occurred.

“We have asked them, if they decide to go forward with the regulatory process after they’ve completed this, that it involves public engagement with Indigenous peoples in the Northwest Territories.”

The level of secrecy left Frame Lake MLA Kevin O’Reilly “really worried.”

“This is not good. And I’m not sure we should even be participating in that kind of process. That is very upsetting,” O’Reilly said.

“Good that we’re getting experts, we’re doing our homework to look at this. But if all of this stuff is happening behind closed doors and is being kept secret – and we’re only going to find out about it if Alberta decides they’re going to do a regulation – that’s not a good place to be.

“I think the minister needs to raise this on Thursday with the Alberta environment minister, that this is just a totally unacceptable process for us – spending taxpayers’ money doing all of this stuff in secret, not telling our people what we’re doing. This is wrong.”

“We will have the conversation,” Thompson responded.

Update: March 8, 2023 – 17:23 MT. This article initially stated that the territorial government opposes the plan to release treated tailings into Alberta’s river systems upstream of the NWT. That was the stated position of the territory’s environment minister in 2021 and is in large part the position now, but the NWT government did update its stance in recent weeks, adding the qualifier that it would oppose any treated tailings release “unless rigorous science demonstrates a safe way to do it.”