The Alberta government waited a month before calling an emergency response to one of the biggest releases of oilsands tailings in the province's history, a leaked document shows.

The document, obtained by The Canadian Press, shows the province didn't initiate an emergency response until after First Nations chiefs in the area went public about how they were informed of the releases from Imperial Oil's Kearl mine, about 70 kilometres north of Fort McMurray, Alta.

The document also sheds new light on official communications and reaction to the spills, now the subject of three inquiries.

"The fact that the province waited over a month before initiating its emergency response is not surprising at all," said Chief Alan Adam of the Athabasca Cree First Nation, which uses the area for harvesting. "We are used to the provincial government letting us down."

Discoloured water, later found to be groundwater contaminated with oilsands tailings, was discovered seeping from a Kearl pond in May. First Nations were not kept informed of that investigation until Feb. 7, when the Alberta Energy Regulator issued an environmental protection order against Imperial after another release of 5.3 million litres of industrial wastewater including some tailings from a containment pond.

That order was made public and reported on. Alberta Environment Minister Sonya Savage has said the protection order was how she first learned of the problem.

The releases drew more attention on March 2, when chiefs of area First Nations said they had not been updated since the original notification, while their people continued to hunt, fish and gather plants in the area. Both Adam and Chief Billy-Jo Tuccaro of the Mikisew Cree First Nation said they'd lost trust in the regulator.

Five days later, on March 7, Alberta Environment began an emergency response to the spill, which contained toxic levels of contaminants including arsenic. It took another three days before provincial emergency response staff made it to the site.

That's what a March 23 document from Alberta Environment and Protected Areas entitled "Kearl Oil Sands — AEPA Response Summary and Drinking Water Evaluation" indicates. The dates are revealed in a timeline of the department's response.

Alberta waited a month to declare emergency response to #oilsands releases: document. #Abpoli

Alberta Environment did not respond to a question about why it took a month to declare an emergency and then only after national media attention.

Adam said it's part of a pattern of indifference.

He said his band hasn't heard from either of the United Conservative Party government members who represent the area, even though both hold relevant posts. Tany Yao is parliamentary secretary for rural health and Brian Jean is minister of jobs, economy and northern development.

"You'd think this would be right up their alley," said Adam in a statement. "Maybe there's a bigger crisis happening in our region that I don't know about that they're focused on instead."

Opposition New Democrat environment critic Marlin Schmidt said he wondered what triggered the emergency decision.

"When (the releases) first hit the press in February, all we heard from the minister, the regulator and Imperial Oil was that everything was fine and under control. A month later, we've got an emergency response.

"What triggered the emergency response?"

The document offers data on a long list of potential contaminants measured at the Fort Chipewyan water intake. It concludes that the water at that point is safe to drink, with levels of many of the toxins too low to measure.

The results of water samples taken close to the release sites aren't listed.

Official responses to the releases are being investigated by Alberta's Information Commissioner, the board of directors of the province's energy regulator and the House of Commons environmental and sustainable development committee. That committee has asked the head of Alberta's regulator and senior Imperial Oil officials to answer questions on April 20 and 24.

The regulator's review, to be conducted by a third party, is to ask if it's the agency's job to assess an incident report and if the proper communication processes were followed by both the regulator and the company. It will also ask if investigation, compliance and enforcement processes were followed.

That report is expected by the end of July.

Schmidt said the real issue is that the Kearl pond continues to seep into groundwater.

"It's good that they're looking at transparency and information sharing. But there is another issue here — a tailings pond that seems to be leaking."

Imperial has said it's building trenches and installing pumps to capture more seepage.

The regulator said it has asked other oilsands operators to review tailings pond controls.

"At this time and based on our preliminary review, no issues have been identified," regulator spokeswoman Teresa Broughton said in an email.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published April 4, 2023.

Keep reading

This story pertains to a slow response to a new leak of toxins that may violate human and constitutional rights. But it's the same old story about a polluting industry in the context of record profits. Movies have been made, books have been written.

This is the very antithesis of best management practices as assumed by an industry that has the Alberta government wrapped around its little finger. It's like a parent letting their troublesome child run rampant over the landscape then using post-event silence or PR flackery to cover up and excuse the bad behaviour. Generations have come and gone, and still the same old foulmouthed, drunk uncle won't quit showing up and ruining the party.

What can be done about it when decades of blame, guilt, financial penalties and environmental criticism aimed directly at the polluters have had little effect? One realistic possibility is going electric and cancelling the carbon in our personal lives. Even though electric vehicles are not a complete answer, they will directly and proportionately displace burning dinosaur piss from Alberta. So will living in a walkable community and taking transit.

There seems to be a new development emerging that could disrupt the world's legacy carmakers and its partners in the carbon industry. Most of them have assumed extraordinary debt levels to go electric, but too many of them plan to incongruently offer a huge number of unsellable burner models beyond 2030. Some early analysts are predicting a mountain of bankruptcy will befall these bad decisions later this decade.

With EV vs. burner price parity on the horizon, and with millions already on EV waiting lists on this continent and in the EU, what idiot would buy a gasoline-chugging car after 2025? The ICE may reach its demise much quicker than anticipated when all the economics are put on the table, namely record debt and affordable EVs entering the market en masse before 2030, perhaps during a dumping operation to move EV stock at record low prices while writing off millions of unsold burner cars. The evolution in battery technology is in lockstep with this fast evolving movement in EVs, some of which will have ranges that exceed 1,000 km. Better grants for EVs will only speed a transition already underway.

Alberta and its unruly oil industry demon child don't have a clue of what may be just around the corner in their primary market: disappearing gas tanks and outcompeted gas-fired power plants. To reiterate, the revolution will arise mainly in their own marketplace playground, and not be confined just to the effects of carbon taxes and regulations.

This video essay is an excellent précis of the deadly roll fossil fuels play in the world. Alberta is mentioned and not in a good light. The guy calls himself the ‘Electric Viking’ and lives in Melbourne Australia, and produces well thought out and impeccably researched opinion pieces with a focus on renewables and EVs. I especially like how he digs into the economic impacts of disruptive renewable tech. His presentations and inputs from several other evidence-based sources, I have concluded that focussing on the positive economic characteristics of renewables, efficacious urbanism and financial return is a very helpful counterpoint to rhetoric.

The public can't afford to turn their attention away when big power and big money get together. In "Oil's Deep State" Kevin Taft described how the fossil fuel industry has undermined democracy and stops action on global warming - in Alberta and Canada. Corporations have been described as being similar to giant oil sands trucks except they have no brakes or steering. False solutions such as carbon capture and storage are a means of extending their profitability. Solar, wind and battery storage have won the energy race but oil is still the most profitable.
"What if the wind doesn’t Blow?" YouTube 2022:

‘No miracles needed’: Prof Mark Jacobson on how wind, sun and water can power the world, Carrington D, The Guardian 2023-01-23: