Latest leaks of poisonous tailings from oil sands mines in northern Alberta have uncovered critical flaws in how Canada and Alberta look after the setting, observers say.
Some accuse the federal authorities of abandoning the province. Others level to what they name a captive provincial regulator. Everybody agrees that there isn’t any 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 dwell close to them.
“We have by no means taken this subject severely,” stated Martin Olszynski, a professor of useful resource regulation on the College of Calgary and former federal regulatory lawyer. “They’ve by no means taken these dangers and these threats severely.”
Imperial found “brown sludge” close to one in every of its Kearl tailings ponds in Could and it grew to become clear over the summer time that the issue was vital.
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Nevertheless, the Alberta Power Regulator didn’t replace First Nations or inform federal and provincial setting ministers concerning the subject till Feb. 7, when it issued a safety order following a second Kearl launch of 5.3 million liters of tailings from a catchment pond. Federal regulation requires that Setting Canada be notified of such leaks inside 24 hours.
“The most important lesson from that is that the province has oversight and management over what info the federal authorities receives,” stated Mandy Olsgard, a toxicologist who has labored on regulatory points for the Alberta Power Regulator and Indigenous teams.
Ottawa joins the evaluation panels that assess initiatives after which largely withdraw, Olsgard stated.
“They only give it to the province.”
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After which the province arms it over to a regulator that many see as too near the business it is imagined to oversee.
“This regulator has all the time thought that its relationship is bilateral, between itself and business,” 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.”
This perspective is pervasive within the provincial authorities, Bankes stated.
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“It is a common message of do not rock the boat,” he stated. “It permeates the Division of Power and it permeates Alberta Setting.”
Gabrielle Lamontagne, a spokeswoman for Setting and Local weather Change Canada, stated in an e mail that the division continues to be working to find out what info Imperial reported to Alberta EDGE, to find out whether or not the discharge meets the triggers that require the report back to be despatched 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 “brazenly communicates with different regulatory companies, such because the Alberta Power Regulator (AER), within the occasion of an emergency or safety-related incident.”
A 2021 survey for Alberta Setting discovered greater than 85 p.c of Albertans have little confidence within the regulator’s skill to handle the business, in that case coal. The survey additionally reported Albertans discovered the company reluctant to launch info and never very clear.
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Each federal Setting Minister Steven Guilbeault and his Alberta counterpart, Sonya Savage, have acknowledged issues want to alter.
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“Now we have to take a step again and say ‘What are the processes? Had been they adopted? And will we enhance them?’” Savage stated this week. “We’re dedicated to taking the step to enhance all of these processes.”
“Now we have to search out higher mechanisms,” Guilbeault stated.
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However Marlin Schmidt, the Alberta New Democrat’s environmental critic, is skeptical.
He stated the province and the regulator had already refused to inform him the scope and timeline for investigating the leak. Savage wouldn’t decide to releasing the outcomes of the investigation, Schmidt stated, nor would she promise to launch outcomes of an inner investigation into whether or not the regulator complied with notification guidelines.
“There is no such thing as a investigation into what course of led to the failure, nor any dedication to enchancment,” he stated. “We simply shrug our shoulders and hope that issues work out higher subsequent time.”
The Kearl scenario reveals it may be a mistake for the federal authorities to “harmonize” rules with the provinces and delegate oversight to them, Olszynski stated.
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“Given the form of politics on this province, we may have seen it coming,” he stated. “We must always have recognized these folks do not speak collectively very effectively, so that you may need to rethink these preparations that rely on them speaking collectively.”
Olszynski stated that oil sands operators ought to now be required to report spills or every other unscheduled releases on to the federal authorities.
“I believe it is time for Setting Canada to take a way more proactive function in tailings administration,” he stated.
The Kearl scenario made one factor clear, Olsgard stated.
“It made it clear to the general public that there are usually not good processes between the provinces and the Feds.”
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