The head of the Alberta Energy Regulator apologized at a Monday federal hearing for not meeting expectations around communication about seepage from a tailings pond.
However, during the hearing, AER president and chief executive Laurie Pushor refused to answer several questions from MPs about details of the seepage and how communication was handled.
Pushor said commenting would be “inappropriate” with investigations ongoing.
Monday’s hearing follows two others held by the House of Commons environment committee last week related to tailings seepage and a spill at Imperial’s Kearl oil sands mine, north of Fort McMurray.
Representatives from six Indigenous communities and Imperial’s chief executive, Brad Corson, testified last week.
News also broke last week about two more oil sands incidents. On April 16, water exceeding sediment guidelines was discharged from Suncor’s Fort Hills site. On Saturday, the AER said it was investigating another Suncor oil sands mine – the Base Mine site – after dead birds, a muskrat and a vole were found at a tailings pond.
In the first part of Monday’s hearing, MPs heard from Dene National Chief Gerald Antoine and Carmen Wells, director of lands and regulatory management for the Fort Chipewyan Métis Nation.
In his opening statement, Antoine said Imperial, Suncor, and the federal and provincial governments “have not engaged with the Dene or provided adequate notice or plans for remediation of the environment, lands, water, air and also wildlife.”
“We agree with Elizabeth May, the Green Party Member of Parliament, who stated this is criminal activity,” Antoine said. “This is a crime and it comes under environmental racism.”
Echoing statements from First Nation and Metis representatives last week, Wells said the community in Fort Chipewyan was on “high alert” and fearful of consuming water, swimming in the lake or eating contaminated fish.
“People aren’t sleeping at night,” she said.
AER skirts specifics
The AER’s Pushor and several others, including NWT environment minister Shane Thompson, spoke in the second part of Monday’s hearing.
After some debate among MPs, Pushor took an oath before the House. The oath was requested by Heather McPherson, NDP MP for Edmonton Strathcona, who attributed her demand to broken trust between the regulator and communities.
Pushor apologized for the way communications were handled around the Kearl incidents and committed to enhancing transparency.
“It is clear that neither Imperial nor the AER met community expectations to ensure they are fully aware of what is and what was happening. And for that I am truly sorry,” he said.
Pushor said two reviews are under way into the AER and Imperial’s conduct regarding the incidents.
“Our board of directors has initiated a third-party review into the AER actions, processes and communication surrounding the incidents, and will publicly post the findings of that review,” he said.
The regulator is also investigating Imperial’s conduct throughout the incidents, according to Pushor.
MPs raised questions about why the leak wasn’t reported earlier. Several said the problem is more than a communications issue, describing longstanding problems with the AER and its credibility.
McPherson said the AER had a track record of failing Indigenous communities, saying sorry, then doing the same again.
“Continually coming forward and saying ‘we’re going to do better’ without actually doing better is not particularly helpful,” she said.
Asked why months-long seepage at Kearl was only publicly reported after a separate spill occurred, Pushor said the regulator had been investigating the situation and only came to a conclusion in January. The AER was in the process of putting together an environmental protection order (EPO) regarding the leak when the second incident occurred, he said.
Pushor was less forthcoming in other answers.
Asked when the AER notified the provincial government about the leak, he instead pointed to the ongoing review of the regulator’s actions.
“I think it’s best that we let that review be a full, independent review,” he said, adding that he personally notified the Alberta government one or two days before the EPO was sent out.
When Mike Lake, Conservative MP for Edmonton-Wetaskiwin, asked if anything from Imperial’s testimony was incorrect or required clarification, Pushor said it would be inappropriate for him to speculate on any potential wrongdoing.
McPherson pointed out that a joint provincial and federal review panel assessing Kearl had highlighted the potential for seepage, noting the tailings pond’s location on porous soil. That panel had recommended a detailed hydrogeological investigation.
However, the AER’s approval issued to Imperial for the same tailings pond did not require such an investigation, she said.
“Why was this recommendation of the joint review panel not followed?” McPherson asked.
Again, Pushor said the question is part of the two ongoing investigations.
“It’s at that time that the detailed answers to all those questions will be available,” he said.
Self-regulation is ‘unacceptable’
In his testimony, NWT environment minister Thompson said the committee should hear from community leaders in the NWT first-hand.
He said trust in the government’s ability to keep water safe has been lost.
Earlier in the hearing, NWT Liberal MP Michael McLeod said failure to inform the North of incidents that could affect their water shows current oversight systems aren’t working.
He asked Dene National Chief Antoine to comment on what might prevent a similar problem in the future.
Antoine, in his reponse, asked: “Why are these companies allowed to investigate themselves?”
In a press conference following the hearing, Antoine said self-regulation on the part of the regulator and company is unacceptable.
He compared it to having residential school abuses investigated by the abusers themselves.
“To really find out what’s wrong right now, to really share the truth, we need to have an independent investigation to determine the extent of the current situation right now,” Antoine said.
He called for Kearl’s production to be halted until the full extent of the leak is repaired, and for all tailings ponds in the oil sands to be inspected for proper maintenance, restoration and repair.
He added that the Dene need to be fully involved and included in all aspects of tar sands development.
Although the economic and social benefits stop at the 60th parallel, he said, the pollution does not.
This article is produced under a Creative Commons CC BY-ND 4.0 licence through the Wilfrid Laurier University Climate Change Journalism Fellowship.