Federal politicians have joined the chorus of anger over Imperial Oil’s failure to alert a downriver First Nations community of a massive release of oilsands tailings first reported last May.

“This is an outrageous act of environmental racism,” Green Party co-leader Elizabeth May told Canada’s National Observer. Her comments came the day after Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation Chief Allan Adam released a statement accusing Imperial Oil of hiding the massive spill from the nation. In two separate incidents, the wastewater spilled and seeped into the forest and wetland near the Muskeg and Firebag rivers, which flow into the Athabasca River.

Tailings are created through the mining and extraction of bitumen in Alberta’s oilsands and are a thick, sludge-like mixture containing toxic naphthenic acids, arsenic and leftover remnants of bitumen, as well as silt, clay, and water. More than 1.4 trillion litres of treated tailings are stored on the banks of the Athabasca River in northern Alberta.

Chief Adam said his nation was unaware tailings from Imperial’s Kearl site were spilling over and leaking into the ground, despite the fact the nation has a contract with Imperial Oil requiring the company inform them of such matters. Imperial Oil had multiple chances to share the news in person, Chief Adam said, but stayed silent until the provincial regulator issued an environmental protection order on Feb. 6.

In a written statement, Imperial vice-president of oilsands mining Jamie Long acknowledged the community’s “concerns about delays in receiving additional information” and expressed regret to Chief Adam that the company’s “communications did not meet the expectations of the ACFN community.”

“We further committed to him that we are taking the necessary steps to improve our communications so this does not happen again in the future,” the statement reads, adding the company intended to share its findings when a cause and a plan of action were determined.

This “cavalier public relations response” is “outrageous,” said May. “Why are they apologizing for their communication style instead of for poisoning people and land and waters and wildlife?”

She went on to say that Imperial Oil “is not a responsible corporate citizen, as they like to pretend they are,” but is actually one of the “worst corporate criminals.”

NDP MP Blake Desjarlais said the situation “requires a full public inquiry as to why these companies feel as though nine months of not warning the community that a dangerous chemical spill is taking place is something that's permissible in Canada.”

Federal politicians have joined the chorus of anger over Imperial Oil’s failure to alert a downriver First Nations community of a massive release of oilsands tailings first reported last May. #AthabascaChipewyanFirstNation #Alberta

The Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation sent a notice to all members warning them to avoid the Kearl site and stop eating any food collected after May 2022, according to Chief Adams’ statement. According to a statement from Imperial Oil, its monitoring to date shows no reported impacts to wildlife and no measurable impact to local waterways.

To say that the release of tailings — one of the most poisonous, dangerous substances that can be produced from these sites — is not resulting in any ecological or environmental damage is “a very far reach,” said Desjarlais. “I even go so far as to suggest that it's misleading to Canadians on the true damages and dangers of the release of tailings. Would the executive of Imperial Oil be happy to eat a fish that his tailings ponds went into?”

Along with the seepage from four tailings ponds reported in May 2022, 5.3 million litres of water reportedly escaped from a tailings overflow drainage pond on Feb. 4, 2023, according to the Alberta Energy Regulator. Just imagine how much liquid has escaped in the nine months since the first violation, said Chief Adam.

Bloc Québécois MP Monique Pauzé dubbed the news “an eloquent demonstration of the industry’s lax attitude towards Native communities and the environment” in an emailed statement to Canada’s National Observer.

“I think it’s fair to qualify this as contempt,” said Pauzé. “The substances released by this oilsands production are highly toxic: I am shocked, yet not surprised, by this lack of transparency and accountability.”

Conservative environment critic Gérard Deltell declined to comment on the issue.

Imperial Oil’s statement outlines some actions being taken to control the seepage, including installation of additional monitoring and pumping wells and “water collection measures.”

Federal Environment Minister Steven Guilbeault released a statement Friday afternoon saying he is “deeply concerned” about the reports. Guilbeault goes on to say he reached out to Chief Adam and his provincial counterpart, Environment and Protected Areas Minister Sonya Savage, to “get to the bottom of the situation” and offered “the unwavering support of the federal government.”

Environment and Climate Change Canada enforcement officers will be given all resources necessary to continue their independent assessment, under the federal Fisheries Act, to determine next steps, according to Guilbeault’s statement. “We need to see a clear remediation plan from the company and to better understand the apparent failures of communication for the notification of this spill.”

To Desjarlais, the situation echoes the mistakes and failures of past governments, in particular, the gutting of environmental protections by former Conservative prime minister Stephen Harper.

Bill C-45 introduced sweeping changes to multiple laws, Desjarlais explained. It stripped the Navigable Waters Act of nearly all its protective measures, made amendments to the Fisheries Act and took away protections of Indigenous people under the Indian Act.

This was all done with omnibus Bill C-45 in 2012, which Desjarlais says is the root cause of the “ramrodding of resource projects that we're seeing today.”

Alberta Energy Regulator issued a statement saying it is the company's responsibility to report releases to affected or potentially affected parties as soon as they become aware of the release.

Desjarlais disagrees with the regulator’s stance.

“As a matter of fact, it is the Crown government's responsibility, no matter if it's the province or the federal government ... to ensure that Indigenous people ... have their lands properly assessed and protected,” he said.

Unfortunately, Canada’s federal laws don't accommodate the reality of these resource companies coming in and abusing public lands and public assets, he added. And the blame for that is not solely Harper’s to bear — the current Liberal government knows the huge amendments that took place under Bill C-45, but we’ve seen very little remedy to ensure that the protections of water in particular, under the Navigable Waters Act, were put back into place, Desjarlais said.

When 71-year-old Alice Rigney heard the news that Imperial Oil failed to tell the nation about the tailings releases, she was “really hurt” and “pissed off.”

“We believed there was a trust between us,” Rigney, an Elder from the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation, told Canada’s National Observer in an interview. “And then this happens for nine months before they're finally found out… What does it tell you?”

She said it hurts that Imperial Oil and industry more broadly make millions and billions of dollars destroying her peoples’ land. “I think to them a spill is, you know, really nothing.”

It’s not nothing to Rigney and other Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation members who rely on the lands and waters to hunt, fish and gather sustenance. Her community has every right to be upset, especially because they’ve had to make sacrifices and more or less go along with industry by way of contribution agreements in order to sustain themselves on the land, she said.

“And yet, we are still being lied to.”

“This is my environment… This land was not given to us to destroy, this land was given to us by the Creator so that we could keep it for our grandchildren and for those yet to come … not plumb it the way industry is doing,” said Rigney.

She recounts going fishing with her family on the Athabasca River in 1982 after a large oil spill from Suncor and watching her brother cook the fish over the campfire and seeing black fat dripping off their meal. When they tried the fish, it tasted like oil.

“I just wonder about those people at Imperial, how do they feel … when they go to bed at night and think, ‘Oh, my. We did this to the environment and to the people downriver.’ Do they even think about it?” mused Rigney.

“It's on their watch,” she said.

Rigney hopes someday their grandchildren will ask them: “Why did you do this to the environment?”

Natasha Bulowski / Local Journalism Initiative / Canada’s National Observer

Keep reading

I'm sure that Danielle Smith and the UCP will come to the rescue of Imperial Oil

"Bitumen, son. Nothing else in the world smells like that. I love the smell of bitumen in the morning. You know, one time we had Fort McKay under a toxic cloud, for 12 hours. When it was all over, I walked up. We didn't find one of 'em, not one stinkin' dink tree. The smell, you know that gasoline smell? The whole town. Smelled like... progress. Someday this war's gonna end."

"How Alberta kept Fort McKay First Nation in the dark about a toxic cloud from the oilsands" (National Observer, Apr 8th 2019)
"How Alberta kept Fort McKay First Nation in the dark about a toxic cloud from the oilsands"
"As the chemicals inched towards the town, AER staff clashed over whether they should warn the community, say insiders interviewed by the investigation.
"…(At that time) there really was no human health risk-based decision-making at the regulator. It was either you killed someone or you didn't.
"…But oilsands operators are exempt from rules set by the AER that compel companies to warn communities if they release toxic substances, so Syncrude faced no consequences from the regulator.
"…In the aftermath of the incident, the regulator fired its chief scientist, a toxicologist who, according to internal records, tried to warn the community of the danger. The regulator then sought to replace her with a job posting that called for someone with lower qualifications.
"…The Fort McKay incident raises further doubts about the independence and the ability of the NDP-led government to regulate oil and gas, said Alberta Liberal MLA David Swann."

Article: "According to a statement from Imperial Oil, its monitoring to date shows no reported impacts to wildlife and no measurable impact to local waterways."
Imperial Oil CEO Hans Schultz: "I see nothing! I hear nothing! I know nothing!"

Article: "Conservative environment critic Gérard Deltell declined to comment on the issue."
Deafening silence from Alberta's War Room. Ezra Levant. Danielle Smith. Rachel Notley.
All the Ethical Oil™ cheerleaders are unavailable for comment.

"Alberta Energy Regulator issued a statement saying it is the company's responsibility to report releases to affected or potentially affected parties as soon as they become aware of the release."

Whose responsibility is it to make sure that happens? Is anybody accountable?
Passing the buck at the AER:

"Alberta First Nation angry at Imperial's silence while tailings pond leaked for 9 months" (CP, Mar 02, 2023)
"Members of the group Indigenous Climate Action (ICA) pointed their frustration at the Albeta Energy Regulator, a high-profile public agency with a mandate to govern resource development. It is funded through administrative levies charged to industry.
"'They did nothing to sound an alarm and warn communities downstream,' said ICA associate director Sheila Muxlow, who called the inaction was negligent and irresponsible.
"'It is the licensee's responsibility to report fluid releases to affected or potentially affected parties as soon as they become aware of the release,' it said, adding an investigation has been launched."

I liked the "eat a fish" remark. Why don't we do that? Write it into the contract that the top executives, and their families, must consume fish and game from the area, provided by the local Indigenous hunters and fishers, on at least a weekly basis.

This article underscores why my response to every land acknowledgement I have to sit through is a loud LAND BACK. These lands BIG OIL AND GAS are willingly polluting do not belong to them.........they belong to the original people of Canada. One of the easiest ways we could clean up our common environment would be to give that land back...........in total...........to the people who know how to live off it without destroying it for future generations.

Take foreign corporations like Imperial Oil and send them back to wherever their homes are. What they want to do to the earth and air and water they depend on .....is up to them. But on our boreal forest...........they need to be permanently banned.

They don't love that land...they are just extracting from it to fund the gated communities where their wealthy shareholders imagine they can survive a degraded earth. They are crazy. Send them home.

Giving land back is apparently not simple. It ought to be. See https://www.cbc.ca/radio/unreserved/land-back-is-complicated-here-s-what...

This is one example of the usual operating methods of oil and gas. This hiding of the dangers involved in their operations is not limited to First Nations land, but exists everywhere they operate.

Gotta love these PR flacks. "In a written statement, Imperial vice-president of oilsands mining Jamie Long acknowledged the community’s “concerns about delays in receiving additional information”"
"additional" information. Yeah, "additional" to nothing. Lying sack of toxic waste.

"Conservative environment critic Gérard Deltell declined to comment on the issue."
Yeah, I'll bet he did.

Imperial Oil aka EXXON enjoys the exquisite pleasure of polluting and destroying our biosphere with no constraint, with the blessing of the government.
It does not pay any garbage taxes and will not pay for any damages left behind. They are using the euphemism ‘climate change’ to coverup their destruction.

All it has to care about is the column of revenue and collect all the profits from our so-called dependence of fossil fuel and the column of expenses are paid by us all.
What a perfect scam!

To top it all, this monstrous force of destruction of our environment, their irresponsible governors have total disregard for humanity making 9 million premature deaths / year by vomiting their crap in the air we breathe, EXXON is listed on the ESG.

« Exxon is rated top ten best in the world for environment, social & governance (ESG) by S&P 500, while Tesla didn’t make the list!
ESG is a scam. It has been weaponized by phony social justice warriors. »

I agree with Elon Musk, ESG is a scam.

Dear Imperial Oil.
" Actively lying and lobbying to protect your polluting ways won’t go down well with future generations. It is also appalling governance."

We booked a BC Ferries reservation for later this week to travel from Vancouver to Victoria. It's one of several necessary and onerous week-long trips to deal with the estate of a recently departed and much loved close elder. I filled the tank in the tiny econobox today with 24 litres of gasoline made from Alberta bitumen refined at the Parkland facility in Burnaby. The gas is transported to gas stations of all brands, so it could have originated in part from the Imperial plant attached to the leaky tailings pond that impacted FN communities downstream. We'll likely burn about 14 litres on the trip, with the car sitting cold at home most of the rest of the time.

This personal example illustrates just how deeply fossil fuels have seeped into society, even if measured on relatively lower usage rates like ours. It's not easy to change that when you're retired and the income is tightly bracketed. Switch to an EV? We don't drive enough to justify the huge hit on our family income. Once the elder's dealings are wound down we may even consider ditching the car altogether and continue to rely on the hundreds of shops within walking distance. But fetching heavy loads and travelling farther away is necessary now and again, and finding a car share outfit vehicle owned by Modo or Evo closeby can be difficult. Sometimes the drunken passengers of recent users leave disgusting messes inside the vehicle.

Shutting down the oilsands at this juncture will be impossible given the industry's connections and clout and society's deep reliance on it. FN suing them may well have better success, but that won't remove the carbon conduit jabbed deep into society's veins. It seems the only effective thing left to affect the necessary change would be to change the economics by working to destroy demand for gas and oil, mainly by replacing at least half of its energy equivalent with renewable electricity.

Government grants and rebates for carbon replacement devices like EVs and heat pumps should be far more generous, perhaps even cover all costs as they are in some EU countries for heat pumps (Italy is now covering 100% of the costs) after Putin's version of "liberation" plays out in Ukraine. That incentive would be far reaching and touch even lower income households. Building more electric mass transit coupled with better zoning for multi-family and mixed use transit-rich development, and forcing utilities to establish a minimum 90% net metering credit for rooftop solar would, no doubt, be a self-catalyzing policy.