On Thursday, Environment and Climate Change Canada said it has opened an investigation into Imperial Oil’s Kearl oil sands site.
The federal agency says it will investigate a tailings pond leak at the northern Alberta site. Environment and Climate Change Canada call the leak a “suspected contravention” of the Fisheries Act. Subsection 36(3) of the Fisheries Act prohibits the deposit of a deleterious substance into water frequented by fish, or in any place where the deleterious substance may enter any such water.
“The decision to move from a full inspection to an investigation means that the file has reached a stage where officers will determine whether charges are warranted for non compliance with the Federal Fisheries Act,” said Minister Steven Guilbeault.
“As this is an active investigation I can’t say anything more about [it at] this point.”
The investigation at the Kearl site is in response to two releases of toxic oil sands tailings water from the Kearl mine, located north of Fort McMurray.
The first release was a tailings seepage and was seen and reported in May of last year but First Nations in the region were not alerted to the spill until February of this year. Later, the leak was determined to be a mix of groundwater and mine tailings.
A second release in February is believed to have been an overflow of 5.3 million litres of contaminated surface water from a containment pond.
The Canadian Press reports that Environment Canada has confirmed the presence of hydrocarbons and naphthenic acids in a small, fish-bearing lake that is located entirely inside Imperial’s lease. As well, inspectors have determined that the tailings-contaminated groundwater and surface water are hazardous to wildlife.
Guilbeault said there are “serious gaps in reporting and notification of these incidents.” He added that he has proposed a meeting with the Alberta government, the government of the Northwest Territories and Indigenous leaders to address the problems with notifications.
According to Environment and Climate Change Canada, an enforcement file moves from inspection to investigation should the purpose of the collection of information shift from the verification of compliance or for the purpose of taking administrative enforcement action, to that of collecting evidence for a potential prosecution.
On Wednesday, Imperial Oil released a press release saying the company is addressing areas of shallow seepage and that regular inspections and “sampling at seep areas” is ongoing and water sampling results are provided weekly to the Alberta Energy Regulator and communities. The company says the work will be complete by the end of May, 2023.
Imperial also says it is “progressing plans” to further protect nearby waterbody from potential seepage. It adds that water testing, confirmed by the local regional municipality, has determined drinking water is safe and “there continues to be no indication of impacts to wildlife or fish.”
Guilbeault contends “The processes we have in place have failed Indigenous communities, failed Albertans and failed Canadians. We need to do better. There’s an immediate issue with the tailing ponds…we want to reassure communities that live around the oilsands that the water they rely on everyday is safe.”