Northwest Territories livid over lack of transparency in reporting of Alberta oil sands spill
Groundwater, surface water in jeopardy of contamination
March 3, 2023 By Government of Northwest Territories
The failure to report a major oil sands spill in a timely manner has left the Northwest Territories’ minister of the environment and natural resources livid.
“I was shocked to learn that one of the largest oil sands spills in Alberta’s history was reported in early February and I am extremely frustrated that we were not informed,” Shane Thompson said. “According to media reports, approximately 5.3 million litres of industrial wastewater overflowed the banks of a storage pond at the Kearl Oil Sands operation north of Fort McMurray. This spill flowed into forest and wetland adjacent to the tributaries of the Muskeg and Firebag Rivers, which flow into the Athabasca River.”
He said a separate and earlier incident at the same site revealed oil sands tailings effluent of an unknown amount with levels of some contaminants over federal and provincial guidelines has been seeping into groundwater and reaching surface water since May of 2022.
(See related story from the perspective of the Alberta Chipewyan First Nation here.)
“I was distressed to learn of these incidents second hand,” Thompson said. “We were made aware of it from Indigenous governments in the area after a regional municipal government in Alberta reached out to them.”
He said the matter violates the Bilateral Water Management Agreement with Alberta which commits both governments to communicate quickly and transparently about issues which could affect shared waters. He added the lack of transparency and information sharing from the territories’ Alberta partners is not an isolated incident, which increases its frustration.
“Thankfully, enhanced water testing done at Fort Chipewyan by the regional municipality has shown no evidence of contamination of Lake Athabasca.”
Thompson said the territorial government is taking several steps to respond to this issue.
“We have requested additional information from the Alberta government to ensure that we have what is required to communicate to our partners in water management and monitoring about any possible risks. We will be activating dispute resolution measures in our transboundary agreement with respect to information sharing in light of this breach. I have requested a meeting with the minister of environment and protected areas, Sonya Savage, to ensure that our bilateral agreement is upheld.”
Thompson added communication with Indigenous governments and the Town of Fort Smith are ongoing to devise a plan for enhanced monitoring of waters in the Slave River to track potential impacts of the incident upstream.
“We will continue to work closely with Indigenous governments and communities every step of the way. This failure comes at a time when the Alberta Government is asking for trust and cooperation from the NWT as they work towards regulations to allow the release of treated oil sands tailings effluent into the environment.”
Thompson said such issues require trust, adding there is no denying that Indigenous governments, community leaders, and the territorial government have been affected by this lack of transparency.
“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. Experts from our public service will continue to scrutinize all pertinent information as it becomes available.
Print this page