Canada environment minister 'deeply concerned' about Imperial Oil tailings leak

Canada's Minister of the Environment and Climate Change Steven Guilbeault speaks during Question Period in the House of Commons on Parliament Hill in Ottawa

By Nia Williams

(Reuters) -Canada's environment minister on Friday said he was "deeply concerned" about a leak of toxic tailings water from Imperial Oil's Kearl oil sands mine in northern Alberta that has been going on for months.

Federal environment minister Steven Guilbeault's comments came a day after the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation, a local Indigenous community downstream from the Kearl site, accused Imperial and the Alberta Energy Regulator (AER) of failing to protect the public.

Industrial wastewater containing toxins including arsenic and dissolved iron has been seeping from tailings ponds at the 240,000 barrel-per-day Kearl oil sands site since at least May last year.

In early February, Imperial reported a separate leak of more than 5,000 cubic metres of tailings water from one of its holding ponds, prompting the AER to issue an environmental protection order.

Chief Allan Adam of the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation said they were not informed about the leaks until after the spill last month.

"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," Guilbeault said in a statement, adding his first thoughts were for the health and well-being of affected Indigenous communities.

Guilbeault said federal enforcement officers will carry out an independent assessment to determine next steps under Canada's Fisheries Act.

The Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation has advised people not to eat any wild meat harvested downstream of the Kearl site after May 2022.

Chief Adam said they were concerned Imperial may not have adequate procedures or infrastructure to contain its tailings and called for a full investigation.

"This does not appear to be a simple accident, but a systemic failure of Imperial's tailing ponds," he said in a statement. "Both Imperial and the AER failed to give notice or take action to keep the public and Indigenous communities safe."

Calgary-based Imperial, which is majority-owned by Exxon Mobil Corp, said the issues seem to be related to gaps within the seepage interception system.

Jamie Long, Imperial's vice-president of oil sands mining, said the AER recently approved a series of plans to implement additional measures ahead of spring snowmelt, and the company is putting in place additional monitoring and pumping wells.

Imperial will also take steps to improve its communications with Indigenous communities, Long said.

"It was always our intent to share our findings when we had more definitively determined the cause and planned actions," he added.

(Reporting by Nia Williams; Editing by David Gregorio)