As he was grilled at the federal environment committee for a second time, the CEO of Imperial Oil continued to insist a massive tailings leak in northern Alberta did not harm drinking water or wildlife. Yet some committee members remain skeptical that the toxic oilsands byproduct did not enter any of the tributaries that lead to the Athabasca River.

“Mr. Corson, to be perfectly honest, I don’t understand how any Canadian can take what you’re saying to this committee as truth,” said NDP MP Heather McPherson on Dec. 14. “I find all of your testimony to be massively problematic. It doesn’t align at all with people who are living on the land … in those communities and the measuring and monitoring that we’ve actually seen.”

Eight months after two leaks at Imperial Oil’s Kearl site made international headlines, CEO and president Brad Corson returned for a second round of testimony before the Standing Committee on Environment and Sustainable Development.

In his five-minute opening statement, Corson told the committee there “continues to be no indication of adverse impacts to human life, wildlife, vegetation or fish populations in nearby river systems.”

Corson reiterated his apology from this spring, adding the company has ramped up communications with nearby communities and First Nations and expanded its monitoring and seepage interception system.

“I can confidently report that the seepage has not reached any waterways, including the Firebag River, the Muskeg River, the Athabasca River or any other waterbodies, including those in the Northwest Territories,” said Corson. “There is no indication of any risks to drinking water for communities downstream,” he said, pointing to sampling done by Imperial Oil and the government.

Liberal, NDP and Bloc Québécois MPs were skeptical, to say the least, of Corson’s assertion that no tailings entered the many tributaries to the Athabasca River near the Kearl lease. Liberal MP Adam van Koeverden said “that claim has been widely refuted by Indigenous groups and other scientists who appeared before this committee since April 20th.”

MPs probed the technical nature of the topic, questioning Corson on the findings of independent sampling and monitoring, as well as the fact that the design of tailings ponds anticipates seepage.

“Data filed to the oilsands monitoring program shows the sulfate at a sampling station in the Muskeg River climbing drastically since March 2022,” said van Koeverden. The levels at that sampling station — just south of the Kearl lease — were 18 times higher than the 2021 average, he added.

Corson said he was not familiar with the data but said Imperial’s sampling and analysis concluded no process-affected water entered the waterways and added, “sulfates are naturally occurring and there can be a great amount of variability over time.”

“So it’s possibly just a coincidence that sulfates are occurring at 18 times the average just following this release?” van Koeverden quipped before continuing with his questions.

BQ MP Monique Pauzé asked whether Imperial Oil has examined independent analyses done by communities.

Corson did not answer yes or no, but said their process is “very independent,” with sampling conducted by an Indigenous-owned company and results processed in government-certified third-party laboratories.

Several MPs raised concerns about the health impacts, particularly elevated cancer rates in Fort Chipewyan.

A rare bile duct cancer has killed and continues to kill people from the tiny Fort Chipewyan community, said Liberal MP Lloyd Longfield.

“The normal incidence is one in 100,000,” he said. Fort Chipewyan’s population is less than 1,000 and as of 2009, there were several confirmed cases of a rare bile duct cancer. Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation Chief Allan Adam’s father-in-law recently died from bile duct cancer.

Longfield wanted to know whether Imperial Oil is reinvesting any of its record profits — more than $7.3 billion in 2022 — into helping communities undertake the monitoring and health studies they have long called for.

Corson said the company donated $250,000 to the Canadian Mental Health Association in Wood Buffalo and requested “it be specifically directed to the seven communities” given the mental toll the incidents took on community members. Earlier this year, Chief Adam and Mikisew Cree Chief Billy-Joe Tuccaro both told the committee about the fear and anxiety that gripped their communities and ongoing concerns about the contamination of the land and waters people rely on for subsistence.

Van Koeverden and McPherson maintain the onus should be on Imperial Oil and other oilsands companies to prove their industrial activities are not linked to elevated cancer rates.

“As far back as 2019, Imperial Oil knew the containment system was not working,” said McPherson. “In May 2022, you discovered what you called brown sludge on the surface, and you must have known what this was. It looked exactly like the brown sludge that sits atop the tailings ponds.”

First Nations and downstream communities were not properly notified of this seepage until a massive spill of 5.3 million litres of contaminated wastewater in February prompted the AER to issue an environmental protection order for both incidents.

“You didn’t tell the communities downstream, and you did nothing to mitigate that. It wasn’t until March 2023, 10 months after the discovery of the brown sludge and six weeks after 5.3 million litres spilled … that you started constructing additional monitoring and containment wells,” said McPherson.

Fort McMurray-Cold Lake Conservative MP Laila Goodridge came to Corson’s defence, accusing Liberal, NDP and BQ MPs of “vilifying” an industry that employs hard-working Canadians, pointing to the 5,000 people employed by Imperial Oil.

“It really aggravates me because through this entire study, we’ve seen time and time again members of the opposition [who] have almost no understanding of this industry … they might say that perhaps they’ve seen a picture of the oilsands, so therefore, they understand it,” said Goodridge, who participated via Zoom. McPherson interrupted to state that not only is she a resident of Alberta, but her spouse and some family members work in the sector.

“If they’re going to vilify the entire oilsands industry, which is exactly what they’re trying to do in this study, then we are putting Canadian energy security at risk,” said Goodridge. We could “shut down this war machine” if the federal government would allow Canada to supply the world with clean Canadian energy, she said.

“I believe the role of members of Parliament in committee is to question the witnesses, not to be ambassadors for the operations of the oilsands,” said van Koeverden.

Corson invited the committee to visit the Kearl facility to see what is being done and earn back their trust. Committee chair Francis Scarpaleggia said the committee already intends to submit a budget request to travel to the oilsands as part of its ongoing study on the tailings issue.

By Natasha Bulowski, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

Original Published on Dec 15, 2023 at 14:29

This item reprinted with permission from   Canada's National Observer   Ottawa, Ontario

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