Imperial Oil Limited (TSE: IMO, NYSE American: IMO) and the Alberta Energy Regulator are covering up mine operational failures that led to leaks and spills, according to an Indigenous community.
Chief Allan Adam from the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation said in a statement that Imperial Oil and the Alberta Energy Regulator (AER) have concealed the significant failures of tailings dams and toxic tailings leaks at the Kearl mine since May 2022.
Adam said that instead of protecting the environment and downstream Indigenous communities, they chose to keep this information from the public.
He says it took almost a year for Imperial to inform downstream Indigenous communities about the four separate tailings pond failures at their Kearl site.
The AER issued an environmental protection order on Feb. 6, 2023, after at least 5.3 million additional litres of toxic chemicals spilled into the environment and containment was not achieved.
Chief Adam criticized Imperial and AER for failing to protect the public. He pointed out that the ACFN had raised concerns about the tailings dams during the environmental assessment in 2007, but the AER approved them despite the concerns.
When the tailings dam failures occurred, Imperial did not inform the Indigenous communities, and the AER did nothing to protect them. Even after Imperial informed the AER of the toxic tailings leak in May 2022, the AER failed to act for months.
"The news that these leaks have been ongoing for over 9 months has caused great anxiety amongst our people."
Full remarks from Chief Allan Adam on the failures of Imperial Oil & the Alberta Energy Regulator to inform ACFN about ongoing tailings leaks at the Kearl Project: pic.twitter.com/AsSIX4zsHX
— Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation (@ACFN_KaiTaile) March 2, 2023
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Not an accident, but a systemic failure of Imperial’s tailing ponds
Furthermore, Chief Adam says that when the AER issued a Notice of Noncompliance to Imperial in September 2022, it did so secretly without notifying or taking action to keep the public and Indigenous communities safe.
“Why are we being kept in the dark? Why didn’t Imperial or the AER inform the public about these failures? There are no good answers to these questions, and that should make everyone, whether you are an investor, a citizen, or a harvester very concerned,” Chief Adam said.
The ACFN had its own helicopter tour of the site by the end of February and although Imperial claims crews are working to contain the spill, the ACFN didn’t see any signs of activity at the leak locations.
They also noticed that production is also continuing as usual which is a few hundred meters away from one of the leaks and several pipes were still filling the tailings pond.
“ACFN monitors also observed 3 moose within 100 meters of the leak.”
“This does not appear to be a simple accident, but a systemic failure of Imperials’ tailing ponds,” added Chief Adam.
He pointed out that the failure of one pond could be attributed to a malfunction, but the failure of four ponds indicated much larger issues at the Kearl site. Additionally, there may be other unreported failures.
The ACFN expressed concerns that Imperial may not have the necessary procedures or infrastructure to handle their tailings properly. Chief Adam emphasized that the incident requires a thorough investigation to uncover the root cause.
The AER said in a statement on Thursday that it has already issued an Environmental Protection Order (EPO) and formal investigation into the recent water seepage incident at the Imperial Oil Kearl site.
The AER says Imperial Oil has been compliant with the EPO and no impacts to wildlife or waterways have been reported. The regulator says it is actively investigating the matter, and companies not complying with AER requirements may face enforcement actions.
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The Kearl Oil Sands Project is an oil sands mine in the Athabasca Oil Sands region at the Kearl Lake area, about 70 kilometres north of Fort McMurray in Alberta, Canada. The project is owned by Imperial Oil and Exxon Mobil Corp. (NYSE: XOM) being developed in three phases with the first phase completed in mid-2013.
Exxon Mobil is a major stakeholder of Imperial which has 5,300 employees, not including contractors.
As a cost-cutting measure, Imperial Oil announced Monday it is reducing the number of contractors at its Kearl oil sands site in northern Alberta.
Imperial said it is postponing some non-essential work or relocating it elsewhere, and no employees have been laid off. The reduction in contractors will not affect oil production at the Kearl project, which has been operational since 2013 and can extract up to 240,000 barrels of bitumen per day. The company did not disclose how many individuals would be affected by the decision but local reports noted that Imperial aims to keep an average of 2,000 workers on site and is presently above that level.
Imperial stock went up by 1.7 per cent on Thursday to $69.59 on the Toronto Stock Exchange.