Apologetic Imperial execs face tough questions about Kearl
Imperial Oil executives expressed remorse about incidents at the company’s Kearl oil sands mine under scrutiny from MPs at a Thursday hearing.
The hearing was the second held this week by the House of Commons environment committee related to a nearly year-long tailings pond leak and major February wastewater spill from the Kearl site, north of Fort McMurray.
Many communities near or downstream of the mine were not informed of the leak, first noticed by the company last May, until after the second incident spilled 5.3 million litres of industrial wastewater into the environment.
Earlier this week, representatives from six First Nations and Métis communities provided testimony about how the incidents had affected their lives. They spoke about broken trust toward the industry, regulators and governments.
On Thursday, three Imperial executives appeared in Ottawa to explain their handling of the situation.
Brad Corson, the chairman, president and chief executive of Imperial, began his remarks with a land acknowledgment – something the company forgot to do at a community meeting in Fort Chipewyan in March. Corson went on to apologize for the incidents and explained the events from the company’s perspective.
“I am deeply apologetic for what has happened at Kearl. We are committed to correcting the situation and ensuring it does not happen again,” he said.
“We can and will do better,” Corson added. “I promise you that.”
Corson and two colleagues faced nearly two hours of questioning from MPs across the political spectrum.
Questions revolved around why communities had been kept in the dark about the leak, what the company has found out about the seepage, and why it is taking so long to get answers.
Laila Goodridge, the Conservative MP for Fort McMurray-Cold Lake, said a vacuum of information existed for weeks after the spill. She described visiting Fort Chipewyan in late February and early March, when Elders told her they didn’t know what was going on but warned her not to drink the water.
“The fear was real, it was palpable,” she said.
According to Corson, when pools of discoloured water were first identified at four locations on-site, Imperial notified communities that it was investigating the source of the water. Discoloured water can occur naturally in the area, he said.
As the company’s investigation revealed that the water contained seepage from tailings, Imperial updated the Alberta Energy Regulator (AER) but not communities, Corson said.
He acknowledged that this was a mistake, as was the sending of an initial notification to communities’ environment committees rather than their chiefs and senior leadership.
“Given the situation and the significance of the concern, we absolutely should have picked up the phone and spoken directly with the chiefs and the leadership,” Corson said.
A log of the company’s communication with communities was tabled at the hearing.
When MPs asked for details about the leak, however, Corson and his colleagues struggled to give clear answers.
Asked how much water had seeped from the tailings pond since May, Corson said the company is still in the process of calculating the estimated volume, adding that “there is a lot of complexity in the calculation.”
Later, pressed for the concentration of contaminants in the below-ground leak, Corson said the company had taken over 1,000 samples in the past month but he did not have the data immediately available.
Meanwhile, the company is continuing to add tailings to the tailings pond.
Simon Younger, senior vice president of Imperial’s upstream operations, said seepage had been intercepted but ongoing monitoring is needed to confirm that this remains the case.
A heated meeting
Corson stressed that “monitoring continues to show there had been no impacts to local drinking water sources and there is no indication of impact to wildlife.”
Earlier this month, however, testing conducted by the AER found hydrocarbons and naphthenic acids – petroleum-derived compounds – in a small lake on the edge of the Kearl site.
“Why should local communities, Indigenous groups or Canadians writ large have any faith in your assessment?” asked Patrick Weiler, Liberal MP for West Vancouver-Sunshine Coast-Sea to Sky Country.
Given longstanding evidence that tailings ponds are leaking and research showing elevated rates of rare cancers in downstream communities, Green Party MP Elizabeth May asked Corson: “How do you sleep at night?”
Heather McPherson, NDP MP for Edmonton Strathcona, highlighted that Imperial lists safety, health and environmental performance first in its list of measures used to determine executives’ compensation. Yet Corson’s pay nearly doubled in 2022 to $17.34 million, according to the Globe and Mail.
“Do you feel that your performance delivered strong safety performance and effective enterprise risk management?” she asked.
Throughout the questioning, Corson said he can’t change what happened but the company can change what it does in future.
He said more than 200 people are working on remediation efforts, including expanding the site’s seepage interception system, installing fences to protect wildlife and increasing water wells and wildlife monitoring.
Imperial has also met with communities and invited them to visit Kearl to see the situation for themselves, according to Corson. The company plans to continue engaging with seven communities in Alberta.
Northern lines of communication
During the hearing, NWT Liberal MP Michael McLeod pointed out that restoring trust would be difficult in the territory, given that Imperial had not yet reached out.
He asked if the company would consider holding meetings in communities in the territory.
Corson responded that he would be “happy to engage.”
“We want to be very transparent with what we’ve learned from this incident, the ongoing data that we’re gathering, and our plans to correct it as we go forward,” he said.
But the seep and spill at Kearl are not the only incidents where communication with NWT residents has been lacking.
Last weekend, Suncor reported a release of 5.9 million litres of water exceeding sediment guidelines at its Fort Hills oil sands mine.
Despite a transboundary water agreement between the territory and Alberta, NWT environment minister Shane Thompson said that, yet again, he was not notified of the incident.
In March, Thompson and Alberta counterpart Sonya Savage undertook the first steps in a dispute resolution process built into the transboundary agreement concerning the incidents at Kearl.
“Same as what happened the first time. I was not a happy camper,” Thompson said, referring to his reaction after hearing of the Fort Hills incident.
Thompson said he raised the issue at a Wednesday meeting with Savage.
During that meeting, Thompson said Savage made four commitments.
The first, he said, is that Alberta agreed to notify the NWT of any spills as soon as the province is aware of them.
Secondly, Alberta and the GNWT agreed to discuss communications improvements in a new notification and monitoring working group.
The working group, announced by federal environment minister Steven Guilbeault this week, aims to improve reporting on environmental emergencies. It is set to include representatives from the GNWT, federal and provincial governments, Indigenous communities and oil sands companies.
Thompson said Alberta and the GNWT support the inclusion of an Indigenous representative from a joint Alberta-NWT committee on that working group.
Finally, he said Alberta agreed to brief the GNWT on the findings of knowledge gap reports related to tailings pond.
Asked how confident he is that the NWT will be notified of future incidents, Thompson said: “I’m more positive than I was before.”
“There was a hiccup, I guess you call it,” he said. “But I think these commitments will actually improve what we’re trying to achieve.”
Regulator to testify next week
In Ottawa, the House of Commons environment committee hearings aren’t over yet. Laurie Pushor, president and chief executive of the AER, is scheduled to testify on Monday.
So far, the hearings have left residents with more questions than answers, Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation stated in a Friday press release.
“After hearing heart-wrenching testimony from community leaders on Monday, and vague promises from Imperial officials on Thursday, we are no closer to the truth,” Chief Allan Adam was quoted as saying.
“What we do know is that the tailings ponds continue to leach, and oil executives and government officials continue to spin tales,” he said.
Dan Stuckless, interim director of administration for the Fort McKay Métis Nation, said Corson appeared genuine in his apology on Thursday.
However, he added that Corson’s statements about wanting to meet or exceed regulatory requirements were “not necessarily comforting.”
What’s not being said in those statements, according to Stuckless, is that the AER’s regulations are largely informed by industry and are not in communities’ interest.
Although Stuckless said he is not so fearful of another issue at Kearl, he added: “I don’t think we’re out of the woods with issues related to tailing structures.”
In Friday’s press release, ACFN regulatory advisor Callie Davies-Flett said the First Nation looks forward to hard questions being asked of the regulator.
The federal committee has a “unique role to play in determining the truth and bringing accountability to the perpetrators of this crime,” Davies-Flett was quoted as saying.
“They should not squander this opportunity.”
This article is produced under a Creative Commons CC BY-ND 4.0 licence through the Wilfrid Laurier University Climate Change Journalism Fellowship.