Suncor reports 5.9M-litre discharge of water that missed guidelines

Suncor says 5.9 million litres of water exceeding sediment guidelines has been released from a pond at its Fort Hills oil sands mine, north of Fort McMurray.

The level of solids in that water was more than twice the limit allowed, the Alberta Energy Regulator said in a statement on its website, stressing that the water was not a leak from a tailings pond.

The AER called the pond a “sedimentation pond” used to settle suspended solids out of surface water collected from parts of the site that haven’t been mined, then drain the water into Fort Creek, which flows into the Athabasca River.


The water in the pond is “naturally occurring on our lease and includes snow melt and precipitation. The surface water from this pond is approved for discharge to Fort Creek to the Athabasca River,” Erin Rees, a spokesperson for Suncor, told Cabin Radio via email.

“A visual inspection of the pond on April 16 indicated siltier conditions than what was expected and actions were taken to stop the discharge,” Rees said.

The AER said it was notified of the problem on Sunday, according to its incident report.

The discharge has been stopped and samples have been collected for analysis, the regulator stated.

Smith’s Landing ‘completely cut out’

News of the release comes amid federal hearings into tailings leaks from Imperial’s Kearl oil sands mine reported earlier this year – one of which has been ongoing for almost a year. Many affected communities were not notified of the leak until another 5.3 million-litre spill of industrial wastewater prompted the AER to issue an environmental protection order.


On Monday, Indigenous leaders from communities downstream of the oil sands spoke about broken trust toward Imperial Oil, the AER and the provincial and federal governments. Many called for the AER to be overhauled or entirely scrapped and replaced.

Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation Chief Allan Adam called the AER “a complete joke.”

Adam and other speakers also highlighted that the incidents at Kearl follow decades of ongoing contamination with little regulatory oversight.

“Nobody cares about us,” said Mikisew Cree First Nation Chief Billy-Joe Tuccaro. “It’s profits over people.”


The Canadian Press reported that the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation and Mikisew Cree First Nation were notified on Monday of the incident at Suncor’s Fort Hills mine. Cabin Radio contacted both First Nations but did not hear back before publication. The Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation said it planned to release a statement later on Tuesday.

Farther north in the watershed, the Smith’s Landing First Nation said it had been kept in the dark.

“I had to find out, basically, through a contact of mine who found out through the media,” said Becky Kostka, lands manager for the First Nation, who was the first to alert Cabin Radio about the release.

Although details of the release remain limited and potential impacts on downstream communities are still unclear, Kostka said the lack of communication is concerning and frustrating.

“We’re just completely cut out,” she said. “It makes me want to cry.”

“There’s just so much contamination currently, with the Imperial spill and now the Suncor spill, and all the other things that have happened over the years that we don’t know about. And nobody really seems to care,” she added.

Even if governments, regulators or scientists eventually reveal that the release is not a threat to the environment and communities downstream, Kostka said the news of such a huge release still has an effect.

“People are now scared of what’s in the water,” she said.

“There are some people who won’t even drink tap water here and they really only want to drink bottled water.

“That’s not OK. And it’s purely because of what’s happening upstream of us.”

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