Alberta oilsands wastewater seepage cleanup to be complete by end of May

Tailings samples at an Imperial Oil research centre.

CALGARY – Imperial Oil Ltd. said its cleanup efforts following recent high-profile wastewater releases from its Kearl oilsands site will be complete next month.

Executives with the Calgary-based company said at an annual investor day event Wednesday that cleanup from February’s wastewater overflow from a containment pond is already complete, and efforts to fully remediate the tailings pond seepage the company discovered last May have advanced significantly.

“Throughout the month of May we’ll essentially be complete, is the way we look at that,” said Imperial senior vice-president Simon Younger during a question and answer session with analysts.

The update came one day before Imperial executives are set to testify Thursday before a House of Commons committee that is probing why it took nine months for First Nations and governments to find out what was happening with the company’s wastewater spills.

On Wednesday, Imperial said it has identified the cause of the February wastewater overflow as a “process control” problem.

“I’ll be crystal clear with it. It should not have happened,” Younger said. “We have already done everything we need to do to ensure that never happens again.”

He added the seepage issue is more complicated, but the company has determined that the seepage occurred at a shallower groundwater level than what the company’s tailings pond seepage interception system was designed to handle. He said Imperial is now working to expand its seepage interception system with additional trenches and monitoring wells.

Water tests after Imperial’s wastewater releases confirmed toxic chemicals in local groundwater and at least one nearby water body.

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On Wednesday, the company apologized once again, saying Imperial places the “utmost priority” on the safety of both people and the environment.

“These incidents don’t align with that, and for this I’m deeply sorry, our upstream organization is deeply sorry, and the entire Imperial organization is deeply sorry,” Younger said.

Federal Environment Minister Steven Guilbeault has promised to create an improved reporting process for environmental emergencies. A group made up of representatives from federal and provincial governments, the Northwest Territories and Indigenous communities affected by the releases is seeking to develop a way to fix the notification process, as well as to address ongoing concerns about the possibility of seepage from all oilsands tailings ponds.

Also this week, Suncor Energy Inc. reported the release of six million litres of water from a pond at its Fort Hills oilsands mine north of Fort McMurray, Alta., that exceeded guidelines for sediment.

Suncor said it has stopped outflow from the pond and is studying the cause of the problem and how it affected water quality.

 

Feature image: Tailings samples are being tested during a tour of Imperial’s oil sands research centre in Calgary, Alta., Tuesday, Aug. 28, 2018. Recent leaks of toxic tailings from northern Alberta oilsands mines have revealed serious flaws in how Canada and Alberta look after the environment, observers say. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jeff McIntosh