Toxic Spills at Alberta’s Oil Sands Spur Canada to Boost Regulatory Oversight

Canada’s federal government is stepping up environmental oversight in Alberta’s oil sands after Imperial Oil Ltd. and the provincial regulator were slow to report toxic spills.

Environment Minister Steven Guilbeault has proposed a joint federal-provincial-Indigenous working group with the involvement of the oil company to address concerns about the spill. Imperial and the regulator have been asked to testify on the spill at the House of Commons Standing Committee on Environment and Sustainable Development.

“This slow notification to the federal government and Indigenous communities is of serious concern,” the federal ministry of Environment and Climate Change Canada said in a release Monday.

The ministry said it and Indigenous communities near Imperial’s Kearl oil sands mine weren’t made aware of two spills from a storage pond until nine months after the first of those spills happened when the Alberta Energy Regulator published an emergency order for Imperial to contain the ongoing seepage.

Imperial maintains it did notify local communities at the time of both leaks, company spokeswoman Lisa Schmidt said in an email. “We deeply regret communications during our investigation into the May incident were not regularly provided to communities following our initial notification as we did not meet their expectations,” she said.

“Imperial has committed to taking the necessary steps to improve our communications, so this does not happen in the future,” she said.

An email to the Alberta Energy Regulator seeking comment was not immediately returned.

The seepages, in May and February, were deemed harmful to fish and, on March 10, enforcement officers issued a directive requiring Imperial to take immediate action to prevent leaks from entering fish-bearing waters.

Communities including Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation and Mikisew Cree First Nation have expressed continuing concern for their health and safety, the ministry said. The federal government has approved funding to ship bottled water to the Mikisew Cree First Nation but local drinking water has been found to meet Canadian standards.

Photograph: Water is pumped into a tailings pond at the Suncor Energy Inc. Steepbank mine in this aerial photograph taken above the Athabasca oil sands near Fort McMurray, Alberta, Canada, on Monday, Sept. 10, 2018. Photo credit: Ben Nelms/Bloomberg

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