Alberta Energy Regulator sued by ACFN over seepages from oilsands site

The regulator’s leadership was served by Chief Allan Adam of the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation during a heated meeting in Fort Chipewyan.

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The Alberta Energy Regulator’s leadership was scolded over their handling of recent spills at Imperial Oil’s Kearl facility during a Tuesday meeting in Fort Chipewyan. Then when it was Chief Allan Adam’s turn to talk, the leader of the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation (ACFN) followed through on a promise made last year and served the regulator with a lawsuit.

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ACFN’s statement of claim alleges the regulator’s responses to the spills, which happened between May 2022 and February 2023, were “sufficiently unlawful, negligent and reckless that they amount to bad faith.” The incidents themselves are “symptomatic of deficiencies” found within Alberta’s regulatory system.

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The regulator’s conduct allegedly violated treaty rights and prevented Indigenous people from practicing treaty rights. The lawsuit seeks “all or part” of royalties from Kearl during the seepages. It also seeks $500 million in damages. The claims have not yet been proven in court.

“We’re suing you for the damage that you’ve caused to the community of Fort Chip and we’ve had enough,” said Adam as he handed legal documents to AER president and CEO Laurie Pushor. “We are one the first ones to be impacted by what happen upstream in our community and we need answers… you will answer in a court of law.”

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Imperial Oil and the regulator told Fort Chipewyan about the first spill nine months later when a second spill occurred. More than 5.3 million litres of tailings and 670,000 litres of contaminated water has seeped from the site.

Pushor apologized at the meeting for not arriving sooner. He said a June meeting was cancelled because of last summer’s wildfires. He acknowledged a photograph of a staff member bringing his own bottled water into Fort Chipewyan fueled fears about local drinking water.

“We let you down by not letting you know what was happening on that on that site or on that tailings pond,” Pushor said at the start of the meeting.

Pushor and staff saw no sympathy or forgiveness during the heated two-hour meeting. The oilsands’ regulatory oversight was called weak or non-existent. Outrage about being kept in the dark persists. Cancer in Fort Chipewyan was raised often, which the community believes is caused by oilsands development.

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Chief Allan Adam of the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation at the frozen shores of Lake Athabasca in Fort Chipewyan on Thursday, January 16, 2020. Vincent McDermott/Fort McMurray Today/Postmedia Network

Cancer, water quality fears dominate meeting

A 2014 report from Dr. James Talbot, Alberta’s chief medical officer at the time, found instances of cervical, lung and bile duct cancers in Fort Chipewyan were higher than expected. The report speculated about several risk factors not related to industrial pollution, such as a lack of local medical staff and resources.

Talbot did not dismiss calls for a larger study investigating cancers downstream from the oilsands. Community leaders at the time, including Adam, felt the report was incomplete. Since 2009, they have called for a thorough study into cancers in the region.

Kendrick Cardinal, president of Fort Chipewyan Metis and a RMWB councillor, said the seepages worsened existing fears about water quality. Cardinal said he has lost faith in the management of the oilsands.

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“I don’t want to be a part of it anymore. As much as that hurts, it hurts to be a part of it… if it was up to me, I’d shut down the oilsands today,” said Cardinal, calling payments from industry “the devil’s dollar.”

“No dollar will ever take back the lives of the people who died from cancer,” he said. “Fort Chip is suffering and dying slowly. That’s the cold hard truth.”

ACFN councillor Mike Mercredi was one of the most outspoken people at the meeting. He called Pushor’s responses to the community “excuses,” and blamed cancers on the regulator and industry.

“You’ve all failed your jobs. I’ve got a graveyard full of family and friends that you killed. Their blood is on your hands,” said Mercredi. “Your regulations are being broken, your rules are being broken and you do nothing.”

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Homes in Fort Chipewyan, Alta. near Lake Athabasca on Thursday, June 15, 2023. Vincent McDermott/Fort McMurray Today/Postmedia Network

Imperial says mitigation is working

Imperial spokesperson Lisa Schmidt said in a Tuesday email that environmental testing has found no evidence of harmful impacts to wildlife, fish or water quality in nearby rivers. A network of trenches, sumps, fences, pumps and monitoring wells are being expanded or built to contain the seepages. The company is allowing independent testing and tours for local Indigenous leaders.

“Data shows that the mitigations are working as intended and preventing further off-site migration of impacted water at those locations,” she said. “We are regularly providing data and monitoring reports to communities and community notification protocols have also been updated to ensure communities are informed early and through multiple channels.”

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