Polluted water spill in Alberta sparks outrage in NWT

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A spill of polluted water in Alberta sparks outrage in the NWT.

Kearl oil sands mining site in northern Alberta, has been dumping contaminated water into the environment since last May.

The Government of the Northwest Territories expressed frustration Thursday after learning that one of the largest industrial water spills in Alberta's history was not reported to it by the province, in violation of a bilateral agreement.

The spill was reportedly discovered in May 2022, and no information from the Government of Alberta made it to the office of Environment and Natural Resources Minister Shane Thompson.

We didn't know anything, I didn't know anything, he said Thursday in the Legislative Assembly.

According to the minister, the information would have been transmitted to him through an aboriginal government, namely the First Nation of Fort Chipewyan, which held a press conference on the subject Thursday morning.

Shane Thompson is Minister of Environment and Natural Resources.

According to the First Nation, a leak of 5.3 million liters of industrial water over a nine-month period was discovered at the Kearl Lake oil sands mine site, north of Fort McMurray. The polluted waters reportedly overflowed the banks of a retention pond, flowing into forest and wetlands adjacent to tributaries of the Muskeg and Firebag rivers, which flow into the Athabasca River.

First Nation Chief Allen Adam accuses Imperial Oil, which manages the site, of hiding this information. The company said in a statement to The Canadian Press that it regrets the communication [of the spill] did not meet the First Nation's expectations.

Shane Thompson, in response to a question from Hay River South MP Rockey Simpson, said that at this time there is no evidence that the spill has compromised water quality in the Northwest Territories.

He said his department has prepared a fact sheet for Indigenous governments in the Athabasca watershed region, including the Municipality of Fort Smith. Increased monitoring of the water quality of the Slave River is planned.

Shane Thompson added that the lack of communication from Alberta violated the bilateral water management agreement that binds Alberta to the territory.

This is unacceptable. We need to be made aware, that's the purpose of these cross-border agreements, said Shane Thompson, who also offered his apologies to residents of the Northwest Territories for this flaw in the system.

In a statement, Shane Thompson said he had requested a meeting with his Alberta counterpart, Sonya Savage. His ministry will also take steps to resolve the disputes provided for in the cross-border agreement.

This lack of transparency and information sharing from our Alberta partners is not an isolated incident, which exacerbates our frustration in this matter, the statement said.

For its part, a spokesperson for the Alberta Ministry of Environment and Protected Areas stated, in writing, that it was aware that the Alberta Energy Regulator issued violation orders in connection with two separate incidents of a retention basin leak and overflow at Imperial's Kearl site.

Shane Thompson explained that this lack of transparency comes as Alberta develops regulations allowing the discharge of treated oil sands tailings effluent into the environment and asks the Northwest Territories to place its trust in it and show cooperation.

These regulations have already caused controversy in the Northwest Territories.

It goes without saying that Aboriginal governments , community leaders and our own government have been shaken by this lack of transparency, wrote Minister Thompson.

This event only underscores our position: the Government of the Northwest will not support the discharge of oil sands tailings effluent unless sound science proves it can be done safely, and unless provisions for information sharing and to interventions emergency measures provided for in our agreement are respected.

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