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First Nations chiefs criticize Alberta premier’s oilsands tailings spill comments

Alberta Premier Danielle Smith is minimizing the effect of two large releases of oilsands tailings water, two area First Nations leaders said Wednesday.
First Nations leaders say Alberta Premier Danielle Smith is minimizing the effects of two releases of oilsands tailings water near lands they harvest from. Smith speaks to members of the media during a press conference in Ottawa, on Tuesday, Feb. 7, 2023. (Spencer Colby/The Canadian Press)

Alberta Premier Danielle Smith is minimizing the effect of two large releases of oilsands tailings water, two area First Nations leaders said Wednesday.

Meanwhile, Environment Canada confirmed the Alberta government didn’t pass along news of the spill. The federal agency, which is investigating the spill, released a timeline saying the department first learned of the releases from First Nations.

Earlier this week, Smith said the release of at least 5.3 million litres of toxic tailings from Imperial Oil’s Kearl mine had no effect on local waterways or wildlife. She also blamed Imperial for slow communications on the releases, which resulted in “misinformation” being spread.

“I don’t really know why she would say that,” said Chief Billy-Joe Tuccaro of the Mikisew Cree First Nation, which is downstream of the releases. Its members also harvest on land adjacent to them.

“I truly believe it’s too early to be definite. (Smith’s) comments are very concerning.”

Chief Allan Adam of the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation said the releases — which contain toxic levels of contaminants, such as arsenic — are much more than a communications issue.

“This is an environmental catastrophe that the (Alberta Energy Regulator) and Imperial Oil tried to cover up and now the premier and (Environment Minister Sonya Savage) are trying to minimize.”

Smith’s office did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Last May, Imperial discovered brown sludge that later turned out to be seepage from a nearby tailings pond. The company told Alberta officials and the First Nations about the initial finding but didn’t release further information until February, by which time another 5.3 million litres of tailings escaped from a containment pond.

Environment Canada said it learned about the releases Feb. 7, the same day the Alberta Energy Regulator released an environmental protection order to the public.

“First Nations contacted (the department) about a recent spill/seepage,” the timeline says.

Alberta’s United Conservative Party government has not said when it first learned of the releases.

Tuccaro and Adam are angry their people harvested for nine months from nearby lands without being kept informed.

“The trust has been broken,” said Tuccaro.

Imperial is allowing environmental monitors from Mikisew on the release site to do their own measurements, he said. Tuccaro said the band wants that arrangement to be made permanent and not just on the Kearl site, but on all oilsands leases.

“I’m not looking for a Band-Aid fix for them to allow us on for a couple months,” he said. “I’m asking for the life of the project.”

Tuccaro said Imperial executives have promised to visit the community of Fort Chipewyan later this month to discuss the situation.

“We have invited community leaders to tour the site and are working directly with those communities on related requests,” said Imperial spokeswoman Lisa Schmidt. “We have also shared our mitigation and monitoring plans with communities and have asked for input on these plans.”

The Northwest Territories government has said Alberta’s failure to notify it of the spills violated a bilateral agreement on the watershed shared by the two jurisdictions.

Tuccaro was also scheduled to speak with federal Environment Minister Steven Guilbeault. Tuccaro said he would be asking for immediate help, including assurances that his community has adequate water supplies.

The Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo has stopped drawing water from the Athabasca River, forcing Fort Chipewyan to rely on limited supplies from its reservoir.

In a release, Adam said there’s plenty of evidence to suggest the tailings have entered local groundwater and waterways.

Imperial’s reports say tailings have entered a small nearby, fish-bearing lake. The province’s energy regulator has warned of likely impacts to areas off the mine site. Aerial photos taken by the First Nation show animal tracks through the release area.

“Photos of pools of affected water, provided by Imperial, make clear that affected water has soaked through the porous ground,” the band’s release said.

As well, Environment Canada said it received a Feb. 14 report about escaped tailings off the mine site.

“(Environment Canada) received a report from Alberta about a concern raised by a member of the public about leaked tailings fluid going off site,” the timeline says. “The concern was about impacts to wildlife on a trap line near the facility.”

Adam said Imperial has denied a request from the band to allow its monitors on the site.

Imperial has said all affected surface ice and snow in the area has been removed and safely disposed. It said the seepage is primarily natural groundwater and precipitation with a “small amount” of tailings.

It is installing monitoring and collection wells, surface pumps and additional drainage collectors to prevent a further release.

Company officials have apologized for the slow communication.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 8, 2023.

Bob Weber, The Canadian Press