Imperial Oil’s plan to build a waste management facility at its Norman Wells site has been referred for environmental assessment by the Sahtu Secretariat.
Unusually, the Indigenous government listed “colonialism by any other name” as a key reason for that referral, alongside more common arguments like effects on the nearby environment.
Imperial Oil is gradually winding down its Norman Wells operation. A waste management facility, first proposed in 2020, would create a form of landfill to hold some of the materials produced as the site is stripped down and demolished.
The proposal to build a key closure facility comes without Imperial Oil having a finalized and approved closure plan, which means an environmental assessment was always likely, to determine whether there are significant environmental concerns and how those will be handled.
However, the secretariat also stated an environmental assessment “will help all parties, Imperial Oil, Canada and the Sahtu, to better understand their relationship with, and responsibilities to, each other.”
Acknowledging that “this seems an unusual reason for an environmental assessment,” the secretariat pointed to an Imperial Oil statement – in another regulatory document – in which the company, asked why waste couldn’t be shipped south, stated waste in Norman Wells needed a “made-in-the-North solution … rather than expecting the south to accept the North’s waste.”
The secretariat, also known as SSI, wrote in response: “SSI considers this statement to be a most egregious one, bordering on colonialism.”
In its letter, the secretariat points out that Imperial Oil and the Canadian government have earned hundreds of millions of dollars in revenue from the North.
“Given, further, that Canada and ultimately, Imperial Oil, were able to access these benefits by virtue of a treaty that effectively transferred the ownership of the Sahtu subsurface lands from their original Indigenous owners to the Crown, SSI can only be astonished at the statement referenced above,” the letter continues.
“SSI believes that Imperial Oil’s full closure and reclamation plan needs to be looked at to remove any trace of the kind of thinking found in the quoted statement, and to ensure that such thinking does not influence the remediation work to the detriment of the Sahtu region and its people.
“Such thinking reflects badly on the company and makes light of the sacrifices the people of the Sahtu have made over the past one hundred years.”
Indigenous governments like the Sahtu Secretariat share a power with regulators to trigger environmental assessments if they believe a project requires one.
On May 31, the Mackenzie Valley Environmental Impact Review Board wrote to Imperial Oil to confirm an environmental assessment – the most thorough regulatory examination of a project available in the NWT – will now be carried out.
Alongside reasons of colonialism, the Sahtu Secretariat expressed concern about what will happen to artificial islands in the Mackenzie River at Norman Wells constructed by Imperial Oil.
There are six artificial islands, all built in the 1980s. Imperial Oil appears to be planning to remove metal anti-erosion armouring from those islands and then let them gradually wash away, the secretariat wrote.
The secretariat thinks that approach could “result in a series of ‘moving islands’ with the upstream boundary eroding and the downstream one accreting, effectively relocating the island footprint.”
An environmental assessment should keep open the possibility of removing the islands entirely, rather than letting them erode, the secretariat stated.
Imperial Oil declined Cabin Radio’s request for an interview about its waste management facility and the Sahtu Secretariat’s concerns.
In a written statement, spokesperson Lisa Schmidt noted the company has an interim closure plan in place and the waste management facility is a “key component” of the interim plan.
“The waste management facility will assist Imperial to support progressive reclamation activities in the short term and facilitate closure in the long term,” Schmidt stated.
“Imperial has engaged with regulators, governments, Indigenous communities and the public on its waste management facility plans for several years prior to submission.
“Imperial remains committed to continuing this engagement and to full participation through the process. We look forward to engaging on the topics of importance to the communities.”