By Natasha Bulowski
Local Journalism Initiative Reporter
Alberta’s energy regulator is a captured entity that should be dismantled, multiple Indigenous leaders and representatives told parliamentarians Monday.
At a meeting of the Standing Committee on Environment, MPs examined the impacts of recent tailings leaks from an Imperial Oil site in northern Alberta.
Both the company and provincial regulator failed to notify downstream communities after Imperial Oil discovered discoloured water near its Kearl oilsands site last May. It took a second, much larger leak of 5.3 million litres on Feb. 4 for the original wastewater spill to be made public. The result is that tailings, a toxic byproduct of oilsands mining, leaked into forests and wetlands near the Muskeg and Firebag rivers, which flow into the Athabasca River.
“The AER (Alberta Energy Regulator) and Alberta is a joke, a complete joke,” Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation (ACFN) Chief Allan Adam told MPs.
Chief Adam flew from his home in northern Alberta to Ottawa in order to testify before the committee. Witnesses are given five minutes to make an opening statement, but from the outset, Chief Adam said he would be exceeding that time limit.
“If you don’t sit and listen to me, I’ll get up and walk away right now ? it’ll all be done in 10 seconds,” Adam told the committee. Instead of testifying at hearings, Indigenous communities should be sitting on the panel asking the questions, with a seat at the table and a say in whether a project is allowed to proceed, he said. But right now, the Alberta Energy Regulator gives all projects a green light, and ACFN members are simply told what type of cancer they have, said Adam, referring to the elevated rates of cancer in Fort Chipewyan.
Witness after witness underscored the importance of studying the cumulative health impacts of oilsands tailings. Communities have been pushing for these studies as early as 2003, and a proposal was submitted to the federal government in 2019. To date, these requests have gone unfulfilled.
The situation at Kearl is just the tip of the iceberg and a symptom of widespread systemic discrimination, several witnesses pointed out.
“I think you need to scrap AER and build it back,” Daniel Stuckless, director of the Fort McKay Metis Nation, told the committee via Zoom. “I don’t think it’s salvageable in its current form.
“The AER has zero credibility outside of Calgary’s echo chamber, and they actively dismiss and downplay impacts of oilsands on communities and Aboriginal treaty rights.”
Indigenous leaders and some federal politicians said the situation at Kearl highlights environmental racism and discrimination that has been going on for decades in the oilsands.
Adam and multiple other witnesses, including Mikisew Cree First Nation Chief Billy-Joe Tuccaro, called on the federal government to undertake a comprehensive inspection of the structural integrity of all tailings ponds across the oilsands, not only at Kearl.
“If a leak can go unreported for 10 months at Kearl, what is going on elsewhere?” asked Chief Adam.
Alberta’s tailings ponds grow by millions of litres each year.
Right now, more than 1.4 trillion litres of toxic tailings sit in these human-made “ponds.”
That number is staggering, and it is “appalling that Alberta has done so very little to manage the escalating growth” of the tailings that seep into the natural environment and watersheds, said Chief Tuccaro.
At the annual Dene Nation water summit, downstream Indigenous communities roundly condemned the federal government’s proposal to treat and release tailings into the Athabasca River in anticipation of the ponds hitting capacity a few years from now.
With summer just around the corner, Chief Tuccaro said he is faced with questions from parents in his community, who want to know if their children will be safe swimming in the lake. He has no answer for them. And so far, he has not been able to get answers from the government, describing a “merry-go-round” of siloed conversations taking place, all while the Fort Chipewyan community is at risk, like “sitting ducks.”
“My members are scared. We have people who are scared to drink their water,” said Tuccaro. The simple act of taking a shower or turning on the tap causes “undue mental stress,” yet these are things people in Ottawa have the right to do whenever you wish, without fear, he said, adding there “would be a crisis” if these impacts were felt in Ottawa.
Representatives from Imperial Oil and AER will testify on April 20 and April 24, respectively.
A few hours before the committee meeting, federal Environment Minister Steven Guilbeault announced he had sent letters to Indigenous leaders about a new working group aimed at addressing the failure to notify downstream communities and the federal government of tailings leaks. The group would include the federal and provincial government, Indigenous Nations from Fort Chipewyan and the government of the Northwest Territories, with participation from oilsands company representatives, according to Guilbeault’s statement.
“To date, Imperial Oil has demonstrated that they are complying with the directive issued under the Fisheries Act on March 10, 2023, to contain the seepage and prevent it from entering a fish-bearing waterbody, but this remains the subject of an active Environment and Climate Change Canada enforcement file,” it reads.
On April 12, Imperial Oil published an update explaining the Feb. 4 spill was caused by “a combination of equipment problems and process failure.” Cleanup work is complete, the company said.
“Based on the company’s monitoring, released fluids did not enter any river systems and water sampling continues to show that there have been no impacts to local drinking water sources. There is no indication of impact to wildlife,” according to Imperial Oil.
To that, Chief Adam says: “Come eat the food we eat and drink the water we drink.”
At the committee meeting, First Nation, Cree and Metis communities told MPs about the importance of hunting, fishing and gathering medicines, all of which rely on the health of the lands and waters.
Chief Adam described feeling “so alone” while making his two cups of morning coffee the day after he learned about the leaks, knowing that turning on that tap could be detrimental to his health and wondering how to tell his community the news.
For 15 and a half years, Chief Adam has been coming to Ottawa and speaking on these issues, he told Canada’s National Observer in an interview. “Maybe the day I won’t come back is, maybe I’m dying of cancer,” he said.
Natasha Bulowski is a Local Journalism Initiative Reporter withCANADA’S NATIONAL OBSERVER. LJI is federally funded.