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Alberta oilsands tailings release hidden from First Nation an audacious act of 'environmental racism': Elizabeth May

Federal politicians have joined the chorus of anger over Imperial Oil’s failure to alert a downriver First Nations community of a massive release of oilsands tailings first reported last May.
Green Party co-leader Elizabeth May. File photo Dan Toulgoet

Federal politicians have joined the chorus of anger over Imperial Oil’s failure to alert a downriver First Nations community of a massive release of oilsands tailings first reported last May.

“This is an outrageous act of environmental racism,” Green Party co-leader Elizabeth May told Canada’s National Observer. Her comments came the day after Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation Chief Allan Adam released a statement accusing Imperial Oil of hiding the massive spill from the nation. In two separate incidents, the wastewater spilled and seeped into the forest and wetland near the Muskeg and Firebag rivers, which flow into the Athabasca River.

Tailings are created through the mining and extraction of bitumen in Alberta’s oilsands and are a thick, sludge-like mixture containing toxic naphthenic acids, arsenic and leftover remnants of bitumen, as well as silt, clay, and water. More than 1.4 trillion litres of treated tailings are stored on the banks of the Athabasca River in northern Alberta.

Chief Adam said his nation was unaware tailings from Imperial’s Kearl site were spilling over and leaking into the ground, despite the fact the nation has a contract with Imperial Oil requiring the company inform them of such matters. Imperial Oil had multiple chances to share the news in person, Chief Adam said, but stayed silent until the provincial regulator issued an environmental protection order on Feb. 6.

In a written statement, Imperial vice-president of oilsands mining Jamie Long acknowledged the community’s “concerns about delays in receiving additional information” and expressed regret to Chief Adam that the company’s “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,” the statement reads, adding the company intended to share its findings when a cause and a plan of action were determined.

This “cavalier public relations response” is “outrageous,” said May. “Why are they apologizing for their communication style instead of for poisoning people and land and waters and wildlife?”

She went on to say that Imperial Oil “is not a responsible corporate citizen, as they like to pretend they are,” but is actually one of the “worst corporate criminals.”

NDP MP Blake Desjarlais said the situation “requires a full public inquiry as to why these companies feel as though nine months of not warning the community that a dangerous chemical spill is taking place is something that's permissible in Canada.”

The Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation sent a notice to all members warning them to avoid the Kearl site and stop eating any food collected after May 2022, according to Chief Adams’ statement. According to a statement from Imperial Oil, its monitoring to date shows no reported impacts to wildlife and no measurable impact to local waterways.

To say that the release of tailings — one of the most poisonous, dangerous substances that can be produced from these sites — is not resulting in any ecological or environmental damage is “a very far reach,” said Desjarlais. “I even go so far as to suggest that it's misleading to Canadians on the true damages and dangers of the release of tailings. Would the executive of Imperial Oil be happy to eat a fish that his tailings ponds went into?”

Along with the seepage from four tailings ponds reported in May 2022, 5.3 million litres of water reportedly escaped from a tailings overflow drainage pond on Feb. 4, 2023, according to the Alberta Energy Regulator. Just imagine how much liquid has escaped in the nine months since the first violation, said Chief Adam.

Bloc Québécois MP Monique Pauzé dubbed the news “an eloquent demonstration of the industry’s lax attitude towards Native communities and the environment” in an emailed statement to Canada’s National Observer.

“I think it’s fair to qualify this as contempt,” said Pauzé. “The substances released by this oilsands production are highly toxic: I am shocked, yet not surprised, by this lack of transparency and accountability.”

Conservative environment critic Gérard Deltell declined to comment on the issue.

Imperial Oil’s statement outlines some actions being taken to control the seepage, including installation of additional monitoring and pumping wells and “water collection measures.”

Federal Environment Minister Steven Guilbeault released a statement Friday afternoon saying he is “deeply concerned” about the reports. Guilbeault goes on to say he reached out to Chief Adam and his provincial counterpart, Environment and Protected Areas Minister Sonya Savage, to “get to the bottom of the situation” and offered “the unwavering support of the federal government.”

Environment and Climate Change Canada enforcement officers will be given all resources necessary to continue their independent assessment, under the federal Fisheries Act, to determine next steps, according to Guilbeault’s statement. “We need to see a clear remediation plan from the company and to better understand the apparent failures of communication for the notification of this spill.”

To Desjarlais, the situation echoes the mistakes and failures of past governments, in particular, the gutting of environmental protections by former Conservative prime minister Stephen Harper.

Bill C-45 introduced sweeping changes to multiple laws, Desjarlais explained. It stripped the Navigable Waters Act of nearly all its protective measures, made amendments to the Fisheries Act and took away protections of Indigenous people under the Indian Act.

This was all done with omnibus Bill C-45 in 2012, which Desjarlais says is the root cause of the “ramrodding of resource projects that we're seeing today.”

Alberta Energy Regulator issued a statement saying it is the company's responsibility to report releases to affected or potentially affected parties as soon as they become aware of the release.

Desjarlais disagrees with the regulator’s stance.

“As a matter of fact, it is the Crown government's responsibility, no matter if it's the province or the federal government ... to ensure that Indigenous people ... have their lands properly assessed and protected,” he said.

Unfortunately, Canada’s federal laws don't accommodate the reality of these resource companies coming in and abusing public lands and public assets, he added. And the blame for that is not solely Harper’s to bear — the current Liberal government knows the huge amendments that took place under Bill C-45, but we’ve seen very little remedy to ensure that the protections of water in particular, under the Navigable Waters Act, were put back into place, Desjarlais said.

When 71-year-old Alice Rigney heard the news that Imperial Oil failed to tell the nation about the tailings releases, she was “really hurt” and “pissed off.”

“We believed there was a trust between us,” Rigney, an Elder from the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation, told Canada’s National Observer in an interview. “And then this happens for nine months before they're finally found out… What does it tell you?”

She said it hurts that Imperial Oil and industry more broadly make millions and billions of dollars destroying her peoples’ land. “I think to them a spill is, you know, really nothing.”

It’s not nothing to Rigney and other Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation members who rely on the lands and waters to hunt, fish and gather sustenance. Her community has every right to be upset, especially because they’ve had to make sacrifices and more or less go along with industry by way of contribution agreements in order to sustain themselves on the land, she said.

“And yet, we are still being lied to.”

“This is my environment… This land was not given to us to destroy, this land was given to us by the Creator so that we could keep it for our grandchildren and for those yet to come … not plumb it the way industry is doing,” said Rigney.

She recounts going fishing with her family on the Athabasca River in 1982 after a large oil spill from Suncor and watching her brother cook the fish over the campfire and seeing black fat dripping off their meal. When they tried the fish, it tasted like oil.

“I just wonder about those people at Imperial, how do they feel … when they go to bed at night and think, ‘Oh, my. We did this to the environment and to the people downriver.’ Do they even think about it?” mused Rigney.

“It's on their watch,” she said.

Rigney hopes someday their grandchildren will ask them: “Why did you do this to the environment?”

Natasha Bulowski, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Canada's National Observer