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Alberta First Nation calls for action after industrial wastewater seeped from tailings pond for months before public was notified

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The chief of the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation (ACFN) is speaking out after an unknown amount of industrial wastewater was released from the Imperial's Kearl mine site north of Fort McMurray more than nine months ago.

Chief Allan Adam of ACFN says despite the fact the potentially toxic material has been seeping out of the site for months, ACFN was only notified about the issue on Feb. 6.

TIMELINE OF EVENTS

According to ACFN, an unknown amount of water has been seeping from four points at tailings ponds at Kearl for an unknown length of time.

The current monitoring system put in place by Imperial to detect seepage did not identify a problem until last spring, when seeping water reached the surface, ACFN said.

Sampling of the water determined it was contaminated with industrial wastewater, which includes tailings water that is not approved for release from oil sands facilities into the environment.

On Jan. 31, 2023, an overland spill occurred, which saw 5.3 million litres of water from one of its drainage ponds pass through the pond's spillway toward the lease boundaries north of Kearl, ACFN says.

The overland spill led the Alberta Energy Regulator (AER) to issue an environmental protection order on Feb. 6, and Imperial notified ACFN about the seepage issue.

"Right now Imperial and the Alberta regulator are unable to tell us the extent of the contamination," Allan told reporters on Thursday. They do not know how long their four ponds have been leaking, they do not know how much toxic chemicals have seeped out into the environment, or what the impacts are likely to be."

"We know that at least 5.3 million litres spilled from just one tailings pond in just one day. Imagine how much toxic chemicals have leaked into the environment over a nine-month period."

Adam says ACFN has its own community-based water monitoring program, and has received permission to test the water at the Kearl site to get more information on the extent of the contamination.

Imperial told ACFN that wildlife in the region would not be impacted, but ACFN member and regulatory advisor Callie Davies-Flett saysthey captured photos of wildlife in the area during a flyover of the area.

'GREAT ANXIETY'

"ACFN is very disappointed and dismayed over the failure of Imperial and the Alberta regulator to inform us about the ongoing and uncontained leaks from the tailings facilities at the Kearl Lake project," Adam said.

"The news that these leaks have been ongoing for over nine months has caused great anxiety amongst our people."

Adams is demanding answers from Imperial and AER as to why the information about the seepage was kept from the public for months.

"We’re supposed to count on the regulator to keep all Albertans safe, and the companies to ensure their projects are operating safely, but this hasn’t happened. For nine months Imperial and the Alberta regulator have endangered the environment, our nation, and the public by covering up the leaks."

He says he was in constant communication with Imperial since last spring, including a face-to-face meeting in November.

"Each meeting was an opportunity where they could have come clean, but they chose to hide the fact from us over and over again."

He wonders if the community would ever have been notified about the seepage if the overland spill had not happened.

"The only reason why the AER notified the public was because of the overflow spill. It had nothing to do with the seepage itself," he said. "They were going to hold that back and hold that under their armpit and not let that into the public eye, but they had no choice but to bring this to the public because of the overspill and why they continue to hide things baffles me."

Adam says if the spill had happened in a more largely populated area, the province would have been forced to release details sooner.

"When you look at the major populations and major areas, I assure you the AER and the culprit would notify the public," he said.

TESTING UNDERWAY ON LOCALLY HARVESTED FOOD

A moose is pictured in the area of Imperial's Kearl mine site. Chief Allan Adam of Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation says there are concerns about contaminated food being eaten by members, as the First Nation was not told about an industrial wastewater leak from four tailing ponds at the site. (Supplied)Adam says a recent study found 78 per cent of people in the Fort Chipewyan area still harvest food from the area, including hunting and fishing.

"Our people harvest food from the forest and the rivers adjacent to Kearl Lake project. Some of these foods have shared throughout our community. We have been eating them for months, unaware of the potential danger."

Davies-Flett says ACFN is in the process of conducting testing on food harvested from the area to determine if there has been any contamination.

"We have a callout for any members that are concerned to bring any frozen food that they’ve harvested within the area so we can conduct those tests," she said. "That’s currently ongoing and results are, we are waiting for those results."

'LET IT BE A LESSON'

Adam is calling on the Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) to conduct an investigation into the spill.

He also wants the DFO and Environment Canada to halt Imperial's Kearl operation until they can clean up the seepage.

"And let it be a lesson to all industry out there if this continues to happen, you would be slapped with the same kind of results," he said.

He also hasn't ruled out legal action against AER.

On Thursday, the Mikisew Cree First Nation issued a press release also calling on governement and industry to take immediate action in wake of the spill and calling for an independant review into the AER's oversight of oil sands tailings. 

"This is a failure of the provincial regulator to do its job. The AER and Canada approved Imperial’s project knowing the risk of seepage for this tailing pond," said the Mikisew Chief Billy-Joe Tuccaro. "Canada and Alberta need to establish a commission to look at solutions for tailings accumulation. As we all know, there are many more tailings ponds and the risk to our Nation is huge."

Imperial released the following written statement about the incident

"We work hard to maintain transparent communication with our communities, and we recognize the communities’ concerns about delays in receiving additional information," vice president of oil sands and mining Jamie Long said.

"We have expressed to [Chief Adam] directly our regret that our 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.

"It was always our intent to share our findings when we had more definitively determined the cause and planned actions. We are committed to learning from this and will continue to provide updates to the communities."

Long goes on to say Imperial plans to add more monitoring and pumping wells at the seepage sites, and work is already underway to build drain structures in the area to collect water that can't be pumped back into collection areas.

Additional surface pumps will also be installed in the spring.

CTV News has reached out to AER for comment.

In a statement late Friday afternoon, Minister of Environment and Protected Areas Sonya Savage said:

“We are monitoring the situation at Imperial Oil’s Kearl project site. Premier Danielle Smith and I have been briefed in the last 24 hours on this situation by the Alberta Energy Regulator (AER), the arms-length regulatory body overseeing investigation, compliance and enforcement in such matters. We understand from them that remediation is underway, and no contaminated water has entered into the water system or affected human health or wildlife. 

“The Government of Alberta is standing by to assist the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation and other communities in any way necessary should it be required, and we look forward to the results of the AER investigation."

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