Imperial Oil’s Kearl oilsands facility has been leaking wastewater for almost nine months. It’s seeping into groundwater and bubbling up into the nearby watershed, according to the Alberta Energy Regulator.

The original leak, reported on May 19, continues. 

A second leak, reported by the company on Feb. 4, spilled an estimated 5.3 million litres of industrial waste water — the equivalent of about two Olympic-sized swimming pools — into nearby forest and wetlands from a storage pond. The land is adjacent to tributaries for two rivers — the Muskeg and Firebag.

The Alberta Energy Regulator issued an Environmental Protection Order against Imperial on Feb. 6 to deal with the contamination. 

The company says it will implement additional monitoring and control measures, including catchments and pumping wells. 

But the regulator is concerned the remediation plan fails to address the issue prior to the spring thaw, which could lead to further contamination and impacts. The regulator is now giving the company until Feb. 28 to revise its remediation plan.

The regulator also ordered the company to submit a new wildlife mitigation plan before the end of the day on Feb. 10, which assesses impacts and proposes a “plan for the humane euthanasia of impacted fish and wildlife.”

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The order follows two notices of non-compliance issued against Imperial for the initial leak.

“The company has been working with the regulator since first identifying the issue. This order will help facilitate regulatory approvals to implement mitigation measures that have been proposed by Imperial,” Lisa Schmidt, a spokesperson for the company, said by email.

“We regret this incident and are making every effort to learn from it and apply preventative measures.” 

Order says groundwater is contaminating surface water

The issue of seepage from the tailings area into groundwater was a source of concern when the Kearl project was moving through a joint provincial-federal environmental assessment. 

The company itself noted the permeability of the ground in the area and said mitigation and monitoring measures would be implemented. 

Without those measures, it estimated as much as 1,000 litres per second could seep into the nearby watershed.

The regulator’s order does not say how much has leaked since the incident was first reported in May. 

In its report, the joint panel assessing the project said without mitigation, the “seepage will likely impact surface water bodies to the north, specifically the Firebag River and its three tributaries, and that groundwater and surface water quality could degrade.”

Mandy Olsgard, an environmental toxicologist and risk assessment specialist who has studied impacts of oilsands operations, says the order is significant because it says tailings ponds are contaminating groundwater and then reaching surface water — a possibility that has been questioned by industry.

“This is saying it is,” Olsgard says. “This is literally the missing link.”

Olsgard has done work for communities in the area, but is not currently doing so and was speaking independently.

She says the issue of seepage was one of the biggest obstacles to get the mine approved. 

Schmidt says the initial leak is the result of “gaps with the seepage interception system.”

Olsgard also says it’s troubling the leak was ongoing for nine months without notification, and notes there is no posting on the regulator’s compliance dashboard notifying the public of the risk until this week’s order.

“There’s five substances that they say are over surface water quality guidelines, of those substances, three or more toxic to humans,” she says.

Concerns about adverse effects as Imperial Oil wastewater continues to leak

Water quality sampling conducted by Imperial and submitted to the Alberta Energy Regulator showed the contaminated water exceeds Alberta Environment and Protected Areas and Canadian Council of Ministers of the Environment guidelines, according to the order.

The contamination includes arsenic, hydrocarbons and sulphides. 

The regulator says it is of the opinion that the leak “is causing, or may cause an adverse effect,” but that no impacts to wildlife have been reported.

Schmidt said monitoring to date has shown no impacts on wildlife and, despite water sampling showing contamination above guidelines, she said there was “no measurable impact to local waterways.”

In addition to work plugging the leak and containing the contamination, Imperial must immediately identify potentially impacted third parties, including Indigenous communities and agricultural users. 

The spill occurred on Treaty 8 land. 

Treaty 8 Grand Chief Arthur Noskey did not respond to a request for comment prior to publication, nor did Chief Mel Grandjamb of the Fort McKay First Nation, on whose territory the facility sits. 

Schmidt said the company has notified local communities.

Gillian Chow-Fraser, the boreal program manager for the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society, says it’s concerning to find out about the spill through the order and that responses from the regulator are often the only way for the public to know about these incidents. 

She says industry does not have plans to deal with its waste as tailings ponds continue to swell and impact downstream communities. 

“We’re really being promised all these technologies that in the future will be able to address things like the leaks, and the tailings ponds will all be reclaimed,” Chow-Fraser says. 

“But this really exemplifies that while we wait on technology that may or may not come to fruition or exist, there is no way of adequately reducing or minimizing the harms that are happening right now.”

The Alberta Energy Regulator said by email that it is unable to offer additional information as there is an active investigation ongoing. 

If the order conditions are not met, the regulator has the ability to impose fines, start a prosecution and restrict or shut down operations until the company complies with the conditions. 

Fish-bearing waterways are under federal jurisdiction and the potential impact to rivers from the leak could involve violations of the federal Fisheries Act. 

Violations of the Fisheries Act are punishable by fines of up to $500,000 and up to two years imprisonment. 

Environment and Climate Change Canada could also not confirm whether it was involved prior to publication. 

Updated Feb. 8, 2023, at 4:35 p.m. MT: This article was updated to include new comments from toxicologist Mandy Olsgard and Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society’s Gillian Chow-Fraser.

Updated Feb. 9, 2023, at 10:57 a.m. MT: This article was updated to clarify the second release involved industrial waste water and to make clear the order revealed contaminated groundwater was impacting surface water.

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