Kearl oilsands leak exposes gaps in how Alberta and Canada oversee industry: experts

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EDMONTON — Current leaks of poisonous tailings from northern Alberta oilsands mines have revealed critical flaws in how Canada and Alberta take care of the surroundings, observers say. 

Some accuse the federal authorities of abandoning the province. Others level to what they name a captive provincial regulator. All agree that there’s no manner a leak from Imperial Oil’s Kearl tailings ponds ought to have gone unreported for 9 months to each Ottawa and Edmonton, in addition to the individuals who reside close to it.

“We now have by no means taken this situation significantly,” stated Martin Olszynski, a College of Calgary useful resource regulation professor and former federal regulatory lawyer. “They’ve by no means taken these dangers and these threats significantly.”

Imperial found “brown sludge” close to considered one of its Kearl tailings ponds in Could and it grew to become clear over the summer season the issue was vital.

Nonetheless, the Alberta Power Regulator didn’t replace First Nations or inform federal and provincial surroundings ministers concerning the situation till Feb. 7, when it issued a safety order after a second Kearl launch of 5.3 million litres of tailings from a catchment pond. Federal laws requires Surroundings Canada to be notified of such leaks inside 24 hours.

“The largest studying from that is that the province has oversight and management over what data the federal authorities is receiving,” stated Mandy Olsgard, a toxicologist who has labored on regulatory points for the Alberta Power Regulator and Indigenous teams.

Ottawa joins within the overview panels that assess tasks then principally again away, Olsgard stated. 

“They simply hand it off to the province.”

After which the province palms it off to a regulator that many think about too near the trade it’s alleged to oversee. 

“This regulator has at all times considered its relationship being bilateral, between itself and trade,” stated Nigel Bankes, a retired professor of useful resource regulation on the College of Calgary. “By no means triangular, by no means a three-legged stool involving the general public.

“For me, this (Kearl launch) simply confirmed all of that.”

That angle is pervasive within the provincial authorities, Bankes stated. 

“It’s a common message of don’t rock the boat,” he stated. “It permeates the division of vitality and it permeates Alberta Surroundings.”

Gabrielle Lamontagne, an Surroundings and Local weather Change Canada spokesperson, stated in an e-mail the division remains to be determining what data Imperial reported to Alberta EDGE, with a view to decide if the discharge met the triggers that may require the report back to be forwarded to ECCC.

EDGE, which stands for Environmental and Harmful Items Emergencies, manages transportation of harmful items emergency calls in Alberta and assesses the severity of harmful items incidents. Its web site says it “communicates brazenly with different regulatory businesses, such because the Alberta Power Regulator (AER), within the occasion of an emergency or safety-related incident.”

A survey performed in 2021 for Alberta Surroundings discovered greater than 85 per cent of Albertans had little confidence within the regulator’s capacity to control trade, in that case coal. The survey additionally reported Albertans discovered the company reluctant to launch data and was not very clear. 

Each federal Surroundings Minister Steven Guilbeault and his Alberta counterpart Sonya Savage have acknowledged issues want to alter.

“We have to take a step again and say ‘What are the processes? Have been they adopted? And do we have to improve them?’” Savage stated this week. “We’re dedicated to taking the step to enhancing all of these processes.”

“We have to discover higher mechanisms,” stated Guilbeault.

However Marlin Schmidt, the Alberta New Democrat’s surroundings critic, is skeptical.

He stated the province and the regulator have already refused to inform him the scope and timeline for the investigation of the leak. Savage wouldn’t commit to creating the outcomes of the investigation public, Schmidt stated, nor would she promise to launch outcomes from an inner investigation into whether or not the regulator adopted notification guidelines. 

“There’s no investigation into what course of led to the failure, nor any dedication to bettering,” he stated. “We’re simply shrugging our shoulders and hoping subsequent time issues work out higher.”

The Kearl state of affairs exhibits it may be a mistake for the federal authorities to “harmonize” laws with the provinces and delegate oversight to them, Olszynski stated.

“Given the sort of politics on this province, we may have seen that coming,” he stated. “We must always have recognized that these of us aren’t speaking very nicely collectively, so that you may need to rethink these preparations that rely on them speaking collectively.”

Olszynski stated oilsands operators ought to now be required to report spills or every other unscheduled releases on to the federal authorities.

“I believe it’s time for Surroundings Canada to take a way more proactive function in tailings administration,” he stated. 

The Kearl state of affairs has made one factor clear, stated Olsgard.

“It’s made it apparent to the general public that there aren’t good processes between the provinces and the feds.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first printed March 12, 2023.

Bob Weber, The Canadian Press

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Kearl oilsands leak exposes gaps in how Alberta and Canada oversee industry: experts

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