Northern communities take water testing into their own hands after Alberta spill

The lands crew for Smith's Landing First Nation near the Alberta/N.W.T. border conduct winter water sampling. (Submitted by Smith's Landing First Nation - image credit)
The lands crew for Smith's Landing First Nation near the Alberta/N.W.T. border conduct winter water sampling. (Submitted by Smith's Landing First Nation - image credit)

A wave of frustration continues to make its way across northern Alberta and the Northwest Territories after news surfaced that toxic seepage from an Imperial Oil tailings ponds went unreported for nine months, and a further leak of more than 5.3 million litres of wastewater containing toxic chemicals was also undisclosed.

Some communities across the N.W.T. have been testing and monitoring their water for years. But the news last week about the spill has resulted in even more water testing and increased communication between communities.

Jon McDonald, a field worker and environmental co-ordinator with the Fort Smith Métis Council, said field workers work alongside the territory's Department of Environment and Natural Resources (ENR) to do community-based and transboundary water monitoring.

They also work together to monitor wildlife and biodiversity, he said — last fall, they set up 50 remote wildlife cameras and audio recorders in selected protected areas, and they plan to set up 50 more this winter.

McDonald said after the announcement of the leak, they worked with ENR to set up water monitoring stations in new locations along the Slave River, which included the water intake at the water treatment centre and the boat launch.

"We're gonna monitor for the next few weeks and compare that data to the previous base data and see if there are any major changes," said McDonald.

Submitted by Jon McDonald
Submitted by Jon McDonald

He said they have also been building relationships with First Nations in Fort Chipewyan so they can share data and close some information gaps. That also includes Smith's Landing First Nation, located just across the border from Fort Smith.

"They have a pretty good environmental program going on there, so we're looking to work with them a little closer," he said.

'Genuine fear' of contamination

Becky Kostka, the lands manager for Smith's Landing, said they are just finishing their third year of a community-based monitoring program. They have been sampling sediment, bugs, fish and water from community-selected water bodies on a quarterly basis.

Kostka said they started the program about three years ago because elders and land users were consistently communicating with her about the significant changes to the land, water, and all the plants and animals that live there.

"They come to me with a genuine fear that industrial development is contaminating their territory, stating that they no longer feel safe in their own home," she wrote in a statement.

Kostka said they were shocked when they found out about the Imperial Oil leak and their first action was to inform the Town of Fort Smith and the Government of the Northwest Territories as they are responsible for the water treatment plant in Fort Smith, which Smith's Landing relies on for their drinking water.

"We wanted to ensure that the water testing in and around the water treatment plant, and on the Slave [River] was occurring," said Kostka.

Submitted by Smith's Landing First Nation
Submitted by Smith's Landing First Nation

She said they have also increased communication with communities located around the spill area and hope to be notified should there be any significant changes in testing results.

"I have some solace that no contamination has been detected in Fort Chipewyan (yet), and so we believe that the likelihood of our drinking water being contaminated is low at this time," she wrote.

In Fort Chipewyan, the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation has increased testing, and communication with other communities, but they are also trying to gain access to the site so they can test the area where the spill happened.

Lori Cyprien, the director of rights and land for the First Nation, said they have been pushing for access to the Imperial Oil site.

She said they want to do their own community-based monitoring with their own independent consultant, but so far Imperial Oil has not agreed to that.

"They've offered us tours, they've offered for us to go observe. But they haven't agreed to letting our people go out and actually sample," she said.

Cyprien said this incident reflects why they started a community-based monitoring program over 10 years ago. Because of the mistrust between the community and industry, community-based monitoring allowed the First Nation to test the water themselves and report those results directly to the rest of the First Nation members.

"By Imperial saying now that they've tested [the water] and there's nothing wrong," she said. "Well, we still don't believe them."

'Communication is the key'

Cyprien also stressed that communication between communities is an important part of their monitoring program going forward. Combining sampling information with the north, she said, will allow for a more complete foundation of data to analyze.

"We all have the same end goal, I think communication is always key. Especially bringing the nations together, together makes us stronger," she said.

All three community-based monitoring programs have plans to continue expanding their programs. McDonald said the Fort Smith Métis Council hopes to add winter water monitoring on the Slave River by next year.

Smith's Landing First Nation is also hoping to offer a crash course in community-based monitoring to hopefully train and hire some new team members.

"The spill was also a not-so-gentle reminder to me to continue to push for community capacity, to hire and train more monitors, and urge youth to come learn, grow, and work with us going forward," said Kostka.