Local Journalism Initiative Reporter
First Nations and Métis communities in the Fort Chipewyan area downstream of Imperial Oil’s Kearl mine site tailings seepage will be invited to speak at a parliamentary committee that will be addressing the situation.
Industrial wastewater has been escaping the external tailings area, both on and outside the boundaries of the Kearl site, since May 19, 2022 without the Indigenous communities being notified until Feb. 6 this year. The wastewater exceeds federal and provincial guidelines for iron, arsenic, sulphates and hydrocarbons that could include kerosene, creosote and diesel.
One seep area is in close proximity to Waterbody 3, which is fish-bearing, with tributaries that feed the Firebag and Muskeg rivers, which flow into the Athabasca River.
A motion was passed March 20 by the parliamentary committee, which will also invite Imperial Oil’s CEO and the Alberta Energy Regulator to speak on the occurrence The motion was brought forward by West Vancouver-Sunshine Coast MP Patrick Weiler, who is a member on the standing committee on environment and sustainable development.
In a tweet March 15, Weiler said Imperial’s CEO will have to explain “how his company let this happen.” AER would have to answer to “why they kept the leak hidden.” Affected Indigenous communities will be asked to testify on how this has impacted them.
Environment and Climate Change Canada Minister Stephen Guilbeault, who addressed the media in Ottawa on March 20, said he was pleased by the motion for testimony at the parliamentary committee.
Guilbeault was joined by Indigenous Services Canada Minister Patty Hajdu. Both ministers said they had spoken with chiefs Billy-Joe Tuccaro (Mikisew Cree) and Allan Adam (Athabasca Chipewyan).
The motion comes on the heels of a letter being sent on March 18 to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau from Tuccaro. In it, he outlined four steps that needed to be taken in order to “address the crisis our community is facing and to protect against another crisis of this kind.”
“Overall, we agree with those requests,” said Guilbeault. “We need to look in detail and what the role is for the federal government to play in regards to each of those requests.”
Tuccaro said the federal government needed to immediately move the Fort Chip water intake to a safer location to ensure safe drinking water on the reserve; enhance monitoring of Mikisew Cree Nation’s drinking water and source water; ensure that timely and complete information is shared on testing; and that there be collaboration of monitoring on the site.
Full funding was also needed for a Fort Chip health study, said Tuccaro, and there needed to be a federal-Indigenous audit of risks for all tailings facilities in the region.
Further, wrote Tuccaro, there needed to be “real solutions” to tailings ponds.
“Canada must immediately establish a process with Indigenous communities to find solutions to the risks that tailings cause to areas of federal jurisdiction, including our Treaty rights. This must take place before the development of a band-aid solution, the creation of effluent release regulations,” he outlined.
Guilbeault said the federal government agreed there needed to be a better monitoring system and that a transparent, independent, timely information process had to be established for seepage or leakage on the tailings ponds.
“We are working with Indigenous nations on a long-term solution to the tailings ponds. The idea that we can simply continue to park large quantities of toxic water in these giant ponds is not a long-term solution to this. We need to find a long-term solution but it’s not up just to the federal government. We need to sit down with our Indigenous partners and other stakeholders to find long-term solutions,” said Guilbeault.
He added that shutting down the Kearl facility while the investigation was ongoing fell into provincial jurisdiction.
Guilbeault blamed the failed monitoring system on the Harper government, which dismantled environmental impact assessment and the project review process in 2012.
The Trudeau government’s Bill C-69, the Impact Assessment Act, which received Royal Assent in 2019, aims to remedy that, but nine of 10 provinces are challenging the act, Guilbeault pointed out. The provinces are calling out the federal government for overstepping its jurisdiction.
“God forbid that we would have impact assessment, that we would hear concerns from Indigenous nations, where we work with them to assess with them projects that have impact on their daily lives,” said Guilbeault.
He said Canada was fighting the provinces “all the way to the Supreme Court of Canada.”
The Supreme Court is hearing arguments on March 21 and 22. The Alberta government challenged the federal law and, in 2021, the Alberta Court of Appeal ruled that the Impact Assessment Act was unconstitutional.
While Environment Canada has said the Kearl mine seepage is “believed to be deleterious, or harmful, to fish,” the Alberta government is saying it has seen no evidence of waterway, waterbody or drinking water contamination.
Hajdu said bottled water had arrived or was being sent to the Indigenous communities in the region, notwithstanding Alberta’s position. She said they were “saving the receipts” for the costs but didn’t specify that Imperial Oil would be presented with them.
Hajdu also said mental health supports were being provided. She said First Nations people were devastated by the impact on their land, as well as concerned about the fish they have caught and animals they have hunted since the seepage began.
“We will continue to be there for communities with the mental health supports they need. And we will be there for communities as they determine for themselves what it is that will help them both from a trust perspective and a healing perspective,” said Hajdu.
Last week, Guilbeault and Alberta Environment Minister Sonya Savage announced at different times the creation of a joint federal-provincial-Indigenous working group, with participation from the oil companies, to address the immediate concerns around the Kearl Oil Sands Mine situation. Details, including participants and mandate, are to come.
Both Guilbeault and Savage also announced they had sent officials to the Kearl site to undertake independent water sampling. The Alberta Energy Regulator and Imperial Oil were also taking their own samples.
Also last week, Environment Canada issued a Fisheries Act Direction to Imperial Oil, which requires immediate action to contain the seep and prevent it from entering a fish-bearing waterbody.
Never miss a Windspeaker article. Subscribe Today to our new Windspeaker Newsletter!
Local Journalism Initiative Reporters are supported by a financial contribution made by the Government of Canada.