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Alberta

Alberta information commissioner to investigate Kearl tailings leak notifications

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By Bob Weber in Edmonton

Alberta’s information commissioner has started an investigation into how the province’s energy regulator notified the public about tailings pond releases at Imperial Oil’s Kearl mine.

“Information and Privacy Commissioner Diane McLeod has launched an investigation into the Alberta Energy Regulator concerning AER’s consideration of the public interest override,” said a news release Wednesday from the commissioner.

In the release, McLeod said the probe is to examine whether the regulator had a duty to release information about risks to the environment, public health or a group of people.

“Did AER have a duty … to disclose information that is clearly in the public interest?” the release asks.

The investigation could also be expanded to include “any other implicated public body,” it says.

The probe stems from two releases of toxic oilsands tailings water from the Kearl mine north of Fort McMurray, Alta.

The first release was spotted and reported in May as discoloured water near a tailings pond. It was found to be tailings seepage, but no further updates were provided to area First Nations until February, when it was disclosed to the public and federal and provincial environment ministers, along with a second release of 5.3 million litres of tailings.

Area First Nations were furious about the fact their members harvested in the area for nine months without being told of possible contamination. The government of the Northwest Territories said the silence violated a bilateral agreement it has with Alberta.

On Monday, Indigenous leaders from communities downstream of the mine up to the Beaufort Sea condemned what they called “failures on the management of tailings ponds, including the recent tailings leak from the Imperial Oil Kearl project.”

On Wednesday, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau also criticized the delayed response.

“We need to understand why the company and the regulator were so slow to notify,” he said in response to a question from N.W.T. MP Michael McLeod in the House of Commons.

Alberta Premier Danielle Smith has said the onus was on Imperial Oil to disclose the releases. She called for “radical transparency” from oilsands operators.

Federal Environment Steven Guilbeault has said reform is necessary to ensure it never happens again. The federal and provincial governments have said they are assembling a working group to improve environmental communications in the oilsands.

The investigation was requested by Drew Yewchuk, a law student at the University of British Columbia and staff lawyer at the University of Calgary’s Public Interest Law Clinic.

“I’m happy to see this going ahead,” he said.

In a post on a blog that concerns Alberta legal issues, Yewchuk wrote the Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act contains a section that obliges public bodies to disclose information about risks of significant harms to the environment or human health and safety.

“All of those requirements appear to have been met in this case,” Yewchuk wrote. “So why did the AER not warn the affected communities and the public until the problem literally overflowed, and even then chose to provide very little information?”

Yewchuk also noted the legislation contains protection for whistleblowers.

He said this is the first time the commissioner has investigated whether a public body should have released public-interest information on its own, without having been asked for it.

Information commissioner investigations can take months, if not years.

“I’m hoping this will get some prioritization,” Yewchuk said.

McLeod said no further details will be available on the investigation, including a timeline for its completion.

“A public investigation report may be issued upon conclusion of the investigation,” the release from her office said.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 22, 2023.

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Alberta

Alberta’s province wide state of emergency ends as wildfire situation improves

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Alberta

Saskatchewan landowners fight against illegal drainage washing out land, roads

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WAWOTA, Sask. — Lane Mountney spreads a map over his kitchen table at his farmhouse in southeast Saskatchewan, pointing to yellow and orange arrows slithering across the document. 

Many of the arrows represent existing channels and ditches, moving across fields and out of wetlands to drain water. The arrows eventually make their way to a creek, causing what he describes as a deluge of problems downstream. 

“All these years, guys have gotten away with draining water and the next guy figures he can get away withit,” Mountney said in an interview at his farm near Wawota, Sask., about 200 kilometres southeast of Regina. 

“If this keeps going like it has, I don’t know what Saskatchewan’s going to look like in 10 years.”

Mountney’s map depicts what’s called the Wawken Drainage Project, a plan developed by the local watershed group that has since been taken over by the Water Security Agency, which is responsible for overseeing drainage in Saskatchewan. 

The project is nearly 14 square kilometres and contains 880 wetlands of various sizes representing a total of 2.4 square kilometres of water. 

A project document indicates that 88 per cent of these wetlands have been drained, partially drained or farmed. About 12 per cent remain intact.

Most of this water is supposed to flow into a creek that runs through a parcel of Mountney’s land. 

The plan developers believe the creek can handle the flows, but Mountney is not convinced. 

Last year, he and his wife, Sandra Mountney, dealt with flooding ontheir horses’ pasture. They decided not to use their well water at the time because it was yellow. 

“They were very excited to tell us that nobody inside the project area is going to lose acres, but they haven’t even looked at who’s going to lose acres miles down the line.” Sandra Mountney said. 

Brent Fry, who farms grain and livestock, said it’s common for his land to flood for three days when people upstream get 50 millimetres of rain. 

He said it has caused roads and access points to erode.

“There are about four farms out there and all they’re doing is draining whether they’ve got permission or not,” Fry said. “I don’t even know what to do because the government’s not doing anything — they’re siding with the big guys.”

Farmers have drained water in Saskatchewan for generations and many have done so illegally by digging ditches without permits.  

Most producers drain because it allows them to grow more crops, helping them pay for land that has become increasingly expensive. However, it has caused yearly flooding for people downstream. Roads also wash out and habitat gets lost.

At the Saskatchewan Association of Rural Municipalities convention in February, reeves passed a resolution asking the Water Security Agency to require those who are illegally draining to remediate their unapproved works. 

Saskatchewan legislation requires upstream landowners to receive permission from those downstream when they want to drain, but many say that’s not happening. 

Sandra Mountney said the Water Security Agency hasn’t been taking concerns seriously.

“It’s hard to know who’s really protecting our waterways,” she said.

The Wawken project began about three years ago but hasn’t been completed. It’s among many drainage projects underway.

Daniel Phalen, a watershed planner, worked on the project as technician before he left for another job. 

He said landowners had been draining water with no permits before the plan. His job was to determine how many wetlands were drained and what works had already been done. 

Phalen said the plan was to put in structures that would slow down the drainage to reduce problems downstream. 

It’s unclear what work had been done on the Wawken project to mitigate flows since Phalen left. The Water Security Agency did not respond to a request for comment.

Phalen said projects can get held up if affected landowners don’t come to an agreement. Expropriation is allowed but it’s rare, he said.  

Another nearby drainage plan, known as the Martin project, has stalled because of landowner concerns.

Researchers have estimated Saskatchewan has lost half of its total wetlands over time for crop production. 

Phalen, who also worked on the Martin plan, said it was concerning to see the number of wetlands sucked out. 

“The Water Security Agency doesn’t have the manpower to do much about it,” Phalen said. “There’s such low enforcement already that if they had any policies in place, people would just drain anyways. It’s kind of a scary problem to be in.”

Sandra Mountney said she’s worried about losing wetlands because they help recharge groundwater supplies and filter contaminants — particularly important when it’s dry. 

The Water Security Agency has released a drainage management framework that aims to prevent flooding and ensure Saskatchewan retains a “sufficient” number of wetlands. 

Leah Clark, the Interim Executive Director of Agriculture Water Management, told attendees at a Saskatchewan Farm Stewardship Association meeting earlier this year that 43 per cent of wetlands are retained within approved projects. She added the province has “thriving” wildlife populations.

However, she said under the policy, landowners would be able to select which wetlands to retain.

“It will achieve a working landscape for landowners to continue to use their land for farming and ranching. This approach will allow for new development while retaining current drainage,” she said. 

Phalen said Saskatchewan could look to Manitoba for solutions to retain wetlands. 

Manitoba has historically drained most of its wetlands in the agricultural regions, he said, but the province has since developed a policy where landowners are paid for retaining them. 

“You know, $100 an acre is not a ton of money, but it’s another incentive to help producers,” he said. “It’s such a complex problem where you got this huge financial incentive to drain.”

Lane Mountney said regulations just need to be enforced. 

“It’s almost too late,” he said. “They should have been out there checking stuff before we got this point.” 

This report by The Canadian Press was first published June 4, 2023.

Jeremy Simes, The Canadian Press

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