Imperial Oil’s Kearl oil sands facility has been leaking tailings wastewater, which risks seeping into the groundwater and nearby streams. The initial leak was ignored by the company for nine months without any notification of the incident to the public. An estimated 5.3 million litres of industrial wastewater have already drained into the forest and wetlands. The massive tailings ponds created by the oil industry have posed serious environmental and health dangers for years. Now that an oil company has allowed and hidden a significant leak, the anger against the industry is palpable.
Government and corporate negligence
Tailings wastewater first began leaking from Imperial Oil’s Kearl Lake site in May of last year. While the company did notify the Alberta Energy Regulator (AER), no one notified any federal regulators, any First Nations downstream of the leak, or any government organization in the Northwest Territories, where the watershed flows into. Two AER notices of non-compliance for the initial leak were ignored by the executives at Imperial. While the oil barons dragged their feet, an estimated one thousand litres of wastewater per second entered the watershed and surrounding areas.
When the details of the leak became known to the public, Alberta’s United Conservative Party (UCP) government was quick to blame Imperial for its “poor communication”. UCP leader Danielle smith said, “If they had been radically transparent from the beginning, it might not have turned into the story that it did”. Communication aside, the UCP were also quick to downplay the severity of the leak. Given the favourable treatment of the energy industry by the UCP, it’s not out of character for the government to keep bad news under wraps for a major oil company. Imperial Oil, the AER, and the Alberta government all maintain that none of the ongoing seepage has entered any streams, but as it’s been nine months of rain and now melting snow draining into creeks and rivers, no one’s buying it. In fact, new areas of contamination are still being uncovered weekly, with the most recent area reported on March 21st.
Fury has since rained down on the Alberta government, the AER and Imperial Oil. The government of the Northwest Territories argues that they should have been informed. The Feds have stepped in, and Environment Canada issued a direction to Imperial Oil to contain and clean its leak. Alberta’s Information and Privacy Commissioner (OIPC) is investigating why the AER chose not to release any information, as they may have violated Freedom of Information laws. Finally, downstream First Nations are furious with Imperial and the Alberta government for their lax enforcement. Some have begun testing water for contamination themselves. Two chiefs of First Nations north of Kearl have rightly demanded Imperial Oil “shut off” production until the seepage is contained.
What’s actually leaking?
Oil sands tailings ponds are built to contain the waste materials which are byproducts of bitumen extraction. This waste is mixed with water and stored in a dug-out pool in the ground. Enormous amounts of toxic substances, many of which are seriously harmful to humans, animals and the environment, are mixed together into a deadly stew. Noise cannons, which sound like shotguns, fire constantly to try to prevent birds from landing and dying in the sludge. Leaks in these ponds can be caused by poor pond design, improper maintenance, and other cost-cutting measures. Constant monitoring and maintenance are necessary to prevent leaks from happening.
A government report from 2007 assessing the Kearl Lake site stated that, without proper measures, in the event of a leak the “seepage will likely impact surface water bodies to the north, specifically the Firebag River and its three tributaries.” The contamination includes arsenic, hydrocarbons and sulphides. Among these harmful substances are ammonia and mercury. Ammonia can wreak havoc on aquatic life in the short term, while mercury poses the long-term risk of worsening the existing problem of biomagnification.
Tailings leaks have been known to cause disruption in the endocrine, reproductive, and immune systems of fish. Not only is this detrimental to fish populations, it is also harmful to anyone who eats the fish from these rivers. Tailings ponds in Northern Alberta have been known to leak into the environment for some time. A 2013 Queens University assessment found certain toxic substances are now 23 times more prevalent in the environment than in the 1960s. One of the most shocking findings in that assessment was the amount of carcinogenic polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) present in the water. The site testing the Muskeg River downstream of Kearl had the highest concentration of PAHs of all sites. All of these leaks threaten the health of everyone downstream. Unfortunately, the community of Fort Chipewyan in Northern Alberta experiences disproportionately high cancer rates, which doctors have linked to contamination from the Athabasca oil sands.
Imperial Oil has a history breaching environmental protections. On 11 separate occasions between July and October of 2019, Imperial’s refinery in Sarnia, Ontario released illegal amounts of sulphur dioxide, exposing the Aamjiwnaang First Nation, who have long been speaking out about the disproportionate level of environmental pollution and adverse health effects experienced by their communities, to the toxic gas. In a veritable déjà vu, the Kearl oil sands leak occurred on Treaty 8 land. Chief Allan Adam of the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation has said that Imperial had every chance to inform him of the leak: “During that nine-month period, ACFN had many meetings with them, including a sit-down, face-to-face between myself and the vice-president in November … Each meeting was an opportunity where they could have come clean, but they chose to hide the fact from us over and over again.”
Expropriate the oil industry
The ongoing leak is a result of Imperial Oil’s desire to maximize profits. They cut costs on maintenance of tailings ponds; then, when that resulted in a leak, they did nothing about it. This abdication of responsibility is astounding. It’s clear that Imperial has no intention of cleaning up their mess, as they had every opportunity to do so in the last nine months. We cannot allow the ruling class to continue down their path of environmental destruction in the name of profit. Everyone knows that industrial waste leaks should be contained as soon as possible, but corporate executives operate only in the interests of their shareholders. As long as these oil and gas industries remain under private ownership, these disasters will continue. The actions of the Alberta government also demonstrate that they ultimately serve the needs of these oil barons, and are not terribly concerned about the health of the working class or the environmental damage done to the planet.
The only solution is to nationalize the energy industry. Unfortunately, Imperial Oil is not unique. While other oil companies have avoided such high-profile events, they all employ the same strategy as Imperial: cut costs, cut maintenance, and maximize profits. It’s almost certain that many other sites are slowly leaching into the ground, hidden from view. The profits reaped from these polluting industries should be used to clean up the tailings ponds themselves and any contamination they’ve already spewed. This could take place alongside a transition to renewable energy.
Only a democratic plan of energy production controlled by the working class can solve the compounding problems of the energy industry. The workers and oppressed must unite and expropriate the industry! We are the only ones who can ensure our own safety and protect the environment from capitalist destruction.