Imperial Oil’s chief executive apologised to Canadian lawmakers on Thursday for toxic tailings leaks at its Kearl oil sands mine and conceded the company had been “negligent” in not sharing information with nearby First Nations communities.
CEO Brad Corson, grilled for two hours by a parliamentary committee in Ottawa, said Imperial had notified Indigenous communities when discoloured water was spotted pooling near the Kearl site last May.
However the company failed to speak directly with the chiefs or update communities when testing showed the water contained tailings, he said.
“I am deeply saddened and apologetic that we did not fulfill the moral obligations that we have with these very important indigenous communities,” Corson told lawmakers.
“It’s horrible that we have shattered the trust with them and we want to do everything we can to rebuild it.”
The months-long seepage, which Imperial is still working to contain, only came to light in February when a second spill of 5,300 cubic metres of water from another pond prompted the Alberta Energy Regulator to issue the company with an environmental protection order.
Corson said Imperial did not notify communities when it first learned the seepage contained tailings because the company was still gathering data and wanted to have a definitive plan.
But Laila Goodridge, a Conservative member of parliament (MP) for Fort McMurray-Cold Lake, the oil sands region, interrupted Corson when he said the vacuum of information had created “uncertainty” in local communities.
“It didn’t just create uncertainty. It created fear,” Goodridge said. “The fear was real. It was palpable.”
Tailings are a waste byproduct of mining containing sands, water, residual bitumen and dissolved metals. Roughly 30 ponds, holding around 1.35 billion cubic metres of tailings, surround Canada’s oil sands mines.
Federal Environment Ministry officials have said the seepage contains levels of chemicals that would be harmful to fish. Imperial said its testing indicates no impact to drinking water or wildlife.
On Monday, representatives of Indigenous communities assailed Alberta’s tailings regulation in testimony to the parliamentary committee.