Regulator investigating release of treated water, sediment at Imperial Oil's Kearl site

The water was considered clean and was to be released back into the environment, but roughly triple the legal limit of total suspended solids was released into the Muskeg River.

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The Alberta Energy Regulator is looking into an accidental release of treated water into the Muskeg River from Imperial Oil’s Kearl operation. The water was considered clean and was to be released back into the environment, but the company accidentally released roughly triple the legal limit of total suspended solids in the Muskeg River.

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Imperial says that on Nov. 13, water passing through a culvert that was being partially eroded by the water flow. This caused soil to seep into the water, which was sent into a channel leading into the Muskeg River. Work crews stopped the water flow once they realized sediment was being released.

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About 670,000 litres of water was released, as was 140 parts per million (ppm) of total suspended solids. The allowable limit for the Muskeg River at the time that the incident occurred was 42 ppm.

Imperial Oil spokesperson Lisa Schmidt said sediment levels had dropped below allowable limits on Nov. 14. Testing of samples collected from the Muskeg River is ongoing to make sure sediment levels remain within the AER’s allowable limits.

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“When this incident occurred, we took immediate steps to put mitigations in place and notified regulators and communities,” said Schmidt in an email. “We are sorry this happened and are applying the learnings from it to inform any additional preventative measures that are identified.”

Kearl has been the site of two large releases of toxic wastewater, though.

The first release was from a tailings pond and was spotted in May 2022. Communities would not get another update for another nine months. That update came in late January when 5.3 million litres of industrial wastewater spilled from a tailings pond into surrounding forests and wetlands.

The AER issued an environmental protection order against Imperial Oil, and told the public about the spill and the ongoing seepage. Nearby Indigenous communities were furious and accused the province, regulator and company of keeping them in the dark for months. Chief Allan Adam of the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation has vowed to pursue the issue in court.

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On Wednesday, Energy and Minerals Minister Brian Jean said he raised concerns during a visit to Kearl that happened two days after the spill. Jean said he was satisfied with the response to this recent incident.

“It’s not part of the tailings pond issue, it’s just muddy water. That muddy water is actually from rain and from snow,” Jean said in the legislature when asked about his visit and praise for the company on social media.

“They might not be aware of that but in the north it actually does snow and that has been stopped. Indeed, water monitoring and air monitoring continues to be done and will continue to be done.”

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