Undisclosed tailings leak in Alberta oil sands prompts outrage in the N.W.T.

Shane Thompson in the N.W.T. Legislative Assembly Thursday.  (CBC - image credit)
Shane Thompson in the N.W.T. Legislative Assembly Thursday. (CBC - image credit)

The N.W.T.'s minister of Environment and Natural Resources said he was shocked Thursday to learn from news reports that one of the largest oil sands spills in Alberta history was discovered in May of last year and he was not informed.

"We didn't hear anything, I didn't hear anything," Shane Thompson said in the Legislative Assembly Thursday afternoon. "We didn't even get notified by any level of the Alberta government."

Instead, Thompson said he heard the news through the equivalent of a game of telephone, started by an Indigenous government, most likely the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation, whose chief, Allan Adam, held a press conference on the issue Thursday.

Adams accused Imperial Oil of a nine-month coverup of a 5.3-million-litre leak discovered in a storage pond at the Kearl Oil Sands operations north of Fort McMurray, Alta.

The tailings wastewater overflowed the pond, spilling into forest and wetland adjacent to tributaries of the Firebag and Muskeg rivers, which flow into the Athabasca River.

Imperial Oil told the Canadian Press it "regrets that communications did not meet the expectations" of the First Nation.

Speaking in response to questions from Hay River South MLA Rocky Simpson, Thompson said there was so far no evidence for concern about the water quality in the N.W.T.

He said his government had rushed to compile a "what-we-know" information sheet to send to all Indigenous governments in the area in the Athabasca watershed. That includes the town of Fort Smith, which Thompson said will be enhancing monitoring of the water in the Slave River.

Thompson said the lack of notice was a breach of the territory's bilateral water management agreement with the Alberta government.

"This is unacceptable," Thompson said. "We need to be informed and that's what those transboundary agreements are about."

Thompson ended the exchange in the Legislature with an apology.

"I apologize to the residents of the Northwest Territories that there was a failure with this system."

'Not an isolated incident'

In a news release later Thursday, Thompson said he's seeking a meeting with Sonya Savage, Alberta's minister of Environment and Protected Areas, as well as activating dispute resolution measures in the transboundary agreement.

"This lack of transparency and information sharing from our Alberta partners is not an isolated incident, which increases our frustration in this matter," the news release reads.

Thompson also said the lack of transparency comes at a time when the Alberta government is asking for "trust and cooperation from the N.W.T. as they work towards regulations to allow the release of treated oil sands tailings effluent into the environment."

Those regulations have already proven controversial in the N.W.T.

"There is no denying that Indigenous governments, community leaders, and our own government have been affected by this lack of transparency," Thompson wrote.

"This event underlines our position: the GNWT will not support the release of oil sands tailings effluent unless rigorous science demonstrates a safe way to do it and information sharing and emergency response provisions under our agreement are sustained."