Alberta First Nation concerned about toxic releases from oil sands site

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Alberta First Nation concerned about toxic releases from oil sands site

The Kearl oil sands site in northern Alberta has been releasing contaminated water into the environment since last May.

Leaks of water contaminated by the exploitation of the Kearl oil sands deposit, north of Fort McMurray, worry the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation, as well as environmentalists.

Since the month May 2022, contaminated water from the tailings ponds is seeping into the ground around the deposit. This water contains toxic substances, such as iron, arsenic and hydrocarbons. In early February, in a separate incident, a retention pond overflowed, releasing 5.3 million liters of contaminated water into the environment.

The Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation wishes they had known about these leaks sooner. Members of this community learned of the leaks when the Alberta Energy Regulator ordered Imperial, the project owner, to develop plans to better contain the tailings and limit their impact on the environment and wildlife.

However, members of the First Nation had at least four meetings with representatives of Imperial after the discovery of the leaks, without them mentioning the existence of a risk of environmental contamination.

In writing, Imperial regrets that their communications did not meet the expectations of the community [of the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation] and affirms that it has taken steps to ensure that this lack of transparency does not occur again in the future. . First Nation Chief Allen Adam says it's going to take a lot of work on Imperial's part to make sure we rebuild trust with [them].

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The contaminated water would have flowed into a forest and a peat bog adjacent to the Kearl site. Both the Alberta Energy Regulator and Imperial Oil say wildlife and waterways in the area were unaffected by the leak.

The Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation still asked its members not to hunt or fish near the Kearl site. It also took samples that will be analyzed to assess the extent of the contamination.

Environment and Climate Change Canada officials also took samples that are currently being analyzed. analysis.

“We take these leaks very seriously. People use the land in the area to hunt and fish, and they have harvested animals that could have been exposed to these deadly toxins. »

— Allan Adam, Chief of the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation

Our people harvest food from the forest and rivers adjacent to the Kearl Project. Some of these foods have been shared throughout our community. We ate them for months, without being aware of the potential danger, notes chef Allan Adam.

Imperial says the spills did not affect area waterways and wildlife.

In the Northwest Territories, Environment and Natural Resources Minister Shane Thompson said in a statement that he was shocked and extremely frustrated that the territory was not notified of the leaks. The Minister assures that this violates the Bilateral Agreement on Water Management between the governments of Alberta and the Northwest Territories.

This lack of transparency and sharing of #x27;information from our Alberta partners is not an isolated incident, which increases our frustration on this file.

Shane Thompson assures that tests at the lake Athabasca do not show any contamination and explains that they have requested a meeting with his Alberta counterpart, Sonya Savage, to ensure that the bilateral agreement is respected.

Two ecosystem protection groups point out that the contamination of the environment by toxic oil residues is a direct result of the inaction of the government and the companies that exploit the oil sands.

Phillip Meintzer of the Nature Association of Alberta is concerned about the impact of tailings ponds on ecosystems in northern Alberta, where oil sands projects are concentrated. It's a growing problem in the territory. The volume of tailings is only increasing because we are mining more and more from the oil sands, he decries.

< p>“In a way, we're not surprised. We are upset, disappointed and worried about the environmental impacts.

— Phillip Meintzer, Nature Association of Alberta

According to Jesse Cardinal, director of the organization Keepers of the Waters, the ecological problem of tailings ponds goes beyond leaks of contaminated water into the environment.

For For her, a large part of the challenge is the restoration of the sites once the exploitation of the deposits is finished. We don't have solid, transparent science to show that you can safely and effectively remove tailings ponds from the landscape, she argues.

She also criticizes the dual role of the Alberta Energy Regulator, which approves new oil projects, while ensuring environmental protection. It confuses the public as to who is protecting the environment right now in Alberta, she said.

The Ministry of Environment and Protected Areas of Alberta Alberta would not comment on the case.

With information from Julia Wong, Kory Siegers, Paige Parsons and Audrey Neveu

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