‘Trust is very much broken’
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This week, MPs grilled a handful of oil execs — and a provincial regulator — over the millions of litres of toxic wastewater that overflowed from a tailings pond in northern Alberta. My colleague Natasha Bulowski was there, watching and listening, and spoke to me about what happened at the hearings on Parliament Hill and what’s next as Canadian governments scramble to make sense of a months-long communication failure that left nearby communities in the dark. Read on to find out more.
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Looking for more CNO reads? You can find them at the bottom of this email.
Hearings on the Hill
MPs are on a quest to uncover what exactly happened in the broken communication between an oil company, a provincial regulator and the Indigenous communities downstream of a northern Alberta tailings pond.
But with a series of hearings on the Imperial Oil tailings leaks — one of which began nearly a year ago but was only made public in February — now officially complete, “to what degree those questions were answered is debatable,” my colleague Natasha Bulowski tells me.
Over the past two weeks, the Standing Committee on Environment and Sustainable Development has heard from the company whose Kearl oilsands tailings ponds spilled millions of litres of toxic wastewater into the surrounding environment. The regulator tasked with enforcing industry rules has also spoken up, and so have representatives from several nearby communities whose residents were shaken and frustrated to learn about the original spill — nine months after it began.
Natasha was there for all of them, starting with testimony from Indigenous leaders where “the tension in the air was palpable.”
During the April 17 hearing, Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation Chief Allan Adam in particular “radiated righteous anger at the fact that Indigenous people are still forced to testify about the damage being done to their lands and health, instead of being the ones asking the questions to determine whether projects can proceed,” Natasha says.
Both he and Mikisew Cree First Nation Chief Billy-Joe Tuccaro deliberately went over the five-minute time limit in their opening remarks, warning MPs that if they were cut short, they would walk.
“The AER and Alberta is a joke, a complete joke.”
— Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation Chief Allan Adam
Then came the heads of Imperial Oil and the Alberta Energy Regulator (AER), who were summoned to provide clarity on what went wrong in the failure to communicate the tailings leak to nearby communities. Their testimony was short on answers, Natasha says.
“Many MPs were clearly dissatisfied with the copious apologies and evasive answers” from the two men, she tells me. One MP — Heather McPherson of the NDP — even went so far as to call for AER president and CEO Laurie Pushor to swear an oath before testifying. She argued “the trust is very much broken” with industry and regulatory bodies. That move drew some pushback from Conservative MP Damien Kurek, but in the end, Natasha says, Pushor was the only person testifying to take an oath.
“It is clear that neither Imperial nor the AER met community expectations to ensure they are fully aware of what is, and what was, happening.
And for that, I am truly sorry.”
— Alberta Energy Regulator president and CEO Laurie Pushor
Pushor refused to answer multiple questions about when the provincial government was made aware of the tailings leak, citing an independent review now underway by the AER. Neither he nor Brad Corson, president and CEO of Imperial Oil, could explain why First Nations chiefs in the area were not properly informed of the leak until nine months later.
“Little was learned through Corson and Pushor's testimony and, as several MPs pointed out, the situation at Kearl shows a pattern of behaviour — it is not an anomaly,” Natasha says.
“We were negligent in not sharing information proactively that we've had. But we've never been trying to hide any information.”
— Imperial Oil president and CEO Brad Corson
Outside, Canadians were also registering their frustration. A group of protesters marched to Parliament Hill on the day of Corson’s testimony, chanting for Imperial Oil to be held accountable for the leaks.
The federal government has taken notice. Shortly before the hearings started, Environment Minister Steven Guilbeault announced the creation of the Notification and Monitoring Working Group, which will include representatives from Ottawa, Alberta, Indigenous nations from Fort Chipewyan and the Northwest Territories, whose government argues Alberta violated a mutual agreement by failing to alert the territory as well.
There’s no specific mandate yet, but “it sounds like the feds want to map out and review the current communication protocol to identify roles and responsibilities for making notifications and other areas for improvement,” Natasha says. The recent hearings could help inform that mandate.
For right now, though, the communities downstream of these tailings leaks live with the knowledge they were kept in the dark. Even though Imperial Oil and the AER have said neither drinking water nor wildlife were affected by the leaks, their word isn’t worth much to nearby communities given the lack of earlier communication. Water quality concerns mean brewing a coffee or taking a shower can be a source of anxiety, Natasha says.
Chiefs in the affected First Nations communities are still pushing for governments to study the cumulative health effects of oilsands mining and tailings and to assess the safety of Alberta’s tailings ponds, which hold more than 1.4 trillion litres of toxic wastewater.
A timeline of Imperial Oil’s tailings leaks
May 19, 2022 — Imperial Oil reports seeing discoloured water near the company’s Kearl oilsands mine to the Alberta Energy Regulator.
Nov. 29, 2022 — Imperial confirms the wastewater is seeping from its Kearl site.
Feb. 4, 2023 — Imperial Oil reports a second leak of 5.3 million litres of industrial wastewater from the Kearl storage pond. It is one of the largest tailings spills in Alberta’s history.
Feb. 6, 2023 — News of both tailings leaks becomes public via an environmental protection order. In the order, the AER notes the original leak is still seeping into the surrounding environment.
Feb. 7, 2023 — Communities downstream learn about the leak for the first time. So does the federal government.
Feb. 10, 2023 — Imperial Oil files a cleanup plan for the toxic wastewater but won’t share details.
March 2, 2023 — The Northwest Territories triggers the dispute mechanism in its water management agreement with Alberta. Environment Minister Shane Thompson says the province’s failure to notify his government “is not an isolated incident.”
March 10, 2023 — The federal government issues a directive to Imperial Oil to stop the leaks, saying they’re likely harmful to fish. The company is required to prevent seeping wastewater from entering nearby bodies of water.
March 14, 2023 — Federal Environment Minister Steven Guilbeault and Alberta Environment Minister Sonya Savage meet and reiterate their shared commitment to addressing the communication failures around the tailings leaks. Guilbeault raises concerns about the province’s existing notification systems. The two ministers talk about a working group to address immediate issues with the Kearl oilsands spill and “restore trust and give transparency to all parties involved.”
March 22, 2023 — Alberta’s information commissioner opens an investigation into the AER and whether the regulator was obligated to disclose information about the tailings leaks to the public.
March 28, 2023 — The AER announces it’s seeking a “qualified, impartial, third-party body” to investigate its communication of the tailings leaks.
April 12, 2023 — Imperial Oil says cleanup of the tailings pond overflow is complete, and soil samples are being tested.
April 17, 2023 — Indigenous leaders testify before the Standing Committee on Environment and Sustainable Development.
April 20, 2023 — Imperial executives testify before the Standing Committee on Environment and Sustainable Development. There are protests outside.
April 24, 2023 — AER president and CEO Laurie Pushor testifies before the Standing Committee on Environment and Sustainable Development.
More CNO reads
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Tucker’s out. If he was willing to provoke international controversy with his call to “liberate Canada,” grad student Jackson Todd writes, how far will he go rhetorically working in a different business model that rewards radicalism over moderation?
Ditching diesel to go with the flow. A new pilot tests out tide-powered clean energy as a way to help remote West Coast communities quit fossil fuels, Rochelle Baker reports.
Danielle Smith is squaring off against herself. The Alberta premier just pledged to build a Calgary arena, but an earlier version of Smith would have never made such a promise, writes columnist Max Fawcett.
“Have some respect for what was supposed to be protected.” Protesters turned out in Pickering, Ont., last weekend to rally against housing development in Ontario’s protected Greenbelt, Abdul Matin Sarfraz reports.
Some climate damage can’t be undone. Inuit want compensation for what they stand to lose in the warming Arctic, but most international funding goes to nation-states, not Indigenous governments, leaving them without money for loss and damage, Matteo Cimellaro and John Woodside report.
“These are all playing with fire.” Experts are worried about new federal recommendations that could relax some of the rules protecting North Atlantic right whales, Cloe Logan reports.
The DL on HFCs. They’re thousands of times more powerful than carbon dioxide and lurking in your supermarket fridge, car air conditioner and maybe even your heat pump, writes Barry Saxifrage.