Table of contents

Overview

The Fort Chipewyan Working Group was established to bring government and representatives of the community together following the unauthorized releases from the Kearl oil sands mine. 

This group is providing a forum for sharing information on government activities in response to the releases and helping ensure community perspectives are reflected in government's additional monitoring in areas downstream of the Kearl Oil Sands Project site. The focus is firmly on keeping drinking water safe and secure for communities.

Safe and secure drinking water for all Albertans is a top priority and we are committed to working with the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo and Indigenous communities to ensure the continued safety of their drinking water supply.

Learn more about drinking water regulations in Alberta.

Status

Ongoing

Who is listening

Ministry of Environment and Protected Areas

Working group mandate

The Fort Chipewyan Working Group will:

  • discuss additional environmental monitoring and drinking water testing in the Fort Chipewyan area
  • ensure input, advice and guidance from community representatives are reflected in government plans for additional monitoring in areas downstream of the Kearl oil sands site

Working group members

  • Government of Alberta
  • Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation
  • Mikisew Cree First Nation
  • Fort Chipewyan Métis Nation
  • Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo
  • Alberta Energy Regulator
  • Indigenous Services Canada
  • Environment and Climate Change Canada

Government actions

Government is conducting independent monitoring in high priority areas to provide an additional level of assurance in response to concerns voiced by communities near the Kearl oil sands site.

During the summer of 2023, government continues to support the communities involved. This includes targeted water monitoring, which is in addition to the significant environmental monitoring already in place for the oil sands region, and helps to assess if there are ambient impacts to water quality, drinking water or fish and wildlife. Results of water monitoring continue to be released through the information below.

This is additional monitoring and does not replace other monitoring already in place for the oil sands region or specific monitoring actions performed by Imperial Oil as required in the Alberta Energy Regulator's environmental protection order.

Water sampling locations and frequency

Government continues to closely monitor the water in the surrounding area. Monthly sampling of surface water quality both upstream and downstream of the Kearl oil sands site is ongoing and will continue through September 2023.

During the spring melt, the Alberta government completed high frequency monitoring of up to 4 times per week near the Kearl oil sands operation and along the Firebag and Muskeg Rivers, as well as additional sampling in wetlands near Kearl Lake, to assure communities that environmental conditions are well understood.

Maps showing surface water quality monitoring locations are below.

Water testing results

Water quality results from initial sampling conducted by the Alberta government in March 2023 are compiled and published below.

Going forward, all new water quality results (along with all data previously collected by Environment and Protected Areas related to the Kearl incident) will be uploaded to the Oil Sands Monitoring Program (OSMP) data portal for easy visualization. The full data set can be downloaded from the OSMP data catalogue.

See below for a summary of results for initial sampling.

  • Lake Athabasca (last updated August 16, 2023)

    August 16

    Additional water testing was conducted in July after a sheen was reported near the beach area of Lake Athabasca along Wylie Avenue in Fort Chipewyan. Both a sheen sample and a near-shore water sample from Lake Athabasca were analyzed for hydrocarbons.

    Alberta Environment and Protected Areas concluded that the sheen was of biological origin and the sample showed nothing of note, with the exception of toluene. Toluene is a common contaminant and its presence in the sample may be the result of decaying organic matter or traces of insect repellant, tobacco or other common products.

    Lab results from the Lake Athabasca water sample showed no detection of toluene but did detect F3 hydrocarbons, which are typical of natural bitumen deposits that can be released to surface waters during erosion of the exposed bitumen ore along the Athabasca River and its tributaries. This is further evidence that the sheen did not originate upstream of Lake Athabasca.

    Results from these samples are now available on the OSMP data portal. A map of the sampling locations is below.

    March 11

    Lab results from sampling in early March show all drinking water related parameters were below laboratory detection limits or within acceptable ranges. This means water taken directly from Lake Athabasca, based on the chemistry measured on these samples, meets the quality required by Health Canada’s Guidelines for Canadian Drinking Water Quality.

    Samples were analyzed for 575 different compound measurements, including metals, organics, nutrients and hydrocarbons.

    The Alberta government continues to re-sample and analyze water testing results. Information will be shared with the nearby communities to the Kearl incident and to the public as they become available.

    For questions about this data, email: [email protected].

  • Waterbody 3 (last updated April 20, 2023)

    Waterbody 3 is a shallow, open-water wetland on the eastern edge of Imperial’s Kearl lease.

    April 20, 2023

    In addition to the results posted on April 4, further results indicate that dissolved iron concentrations exceeded the environmental quality guideline for Alberta surface waters at both sampling locations in Waterbody 3. Iron can be found in waterways because of natural runoff and other geologic sources. 

    April 4, 2023

    Based on lab results from the Alberta government’s independent sampling, we agree with the Alberta Energy Regulator's findings that process-affected water may have entered Waterbody 3.

    Data from samples taken on March 15 from Waterbody 3 shows that F2 hydrocarbon concentrations collected near to the tailings dyke exceed the Alberta Protection for Aquatic Life guidelines (AEP PAL) and the Canadian Council of Ministers of the Environment Environmental quality guidelines (CCME CEQGs) acute (short-term) guideline for the protection of aquatic life. The sample from the outlet of Waterbody 3 was below guideline values and were below our detection limit of 100 micrograms per litre from initial results. Naphthenic acids were detected at elevated concentrations.

    To date, there is no evidence that the presence of process-affected water in waterbody 3 has affected municipal drinking water sources located more than 200 kilometres downstream in Lake Athabasca.

  • Firebag River (last updated April 20, 2023)

    Naphthenic Acids were detected in all the Firebag River sites, but at much lower concentrations (average: 27 micrograms per liter) compared to levels found in Waterbody 3. Within the Firebag River, concentrations increased from upstream to downstream. This spatial pattern may reflect the fact that the Firebag River flows through the bitumen-bearing McMurray Formation. Natural river erosion of the McMurray Formation may be an important source of naphthenic acids to regional rivers and streams. No guidelines exist for naphthenic acids.

    An exceedance of dissolved iron based on environmental quality guidelines for Alberta surface waters was also identified in a sample taken from an unnamed tributary to the Firebag River north of the Kearl site. Water samples collected from Firebag River both upstream and downstream of the Kearl site exceeded dissolved iron guidelines from one of the labs but not the other, we are also investigating this difference in results from independent labs.

    Pyrene concentrations that exceeded the protection of aquatic life guideline were found in one laboratory result from a water sample collected from the Firebag River upstream of the Kearl site. Pyrene is a polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbon that forms from incomplete combustion or organic materials (wood, coal, fossil fuels, etc.) and is commonly present following forest fires. Pyrene was measured by 2 different labs. Similar to the dissolved iron exceedances noted above, the lab results from 2 different labs did not agree for this parameter, necessitating further investigation.

  • Athabasca River (last updated April 20, 2023)

    One of the laboratory results from a water sample collected from the Athabasca River upstream of Fort McMurray indicated pyrene concentrations that exceeded the protection of aquatic life guideline. Similar to the pyrene concentrations noted in the Firebag River above, the lab results from 2 different labs did not agree for this parameter, necessitating further investigation.

    The sampling location is upstream of the Kearl site and not related to the Kearl incident.

Oil sands monitoring program

The Oil Sands Monitoring Program studies and examines the impacts of oil sands development on air, water, wetlands, wildlife health and biodiversity in the Athabasca, Cold Lake and Peace areas that make up the oil sands region.

It is one of the largest environmental monitoring programs in the world and is delivered jointly between the Alberta government and Environment and Climate Change Canada. The Oil Sands Monitoring Program is funded by industry, not taxpayers, with oil sands operators contributing up to $50 million annually.

Background

On February 6, 2023, the Alberta Energy Regulator issued an Environmental Protection Order to Imperial Oil in response to 2 separate wastewater release incidents at the Kearl Oil Sands Project: 

  • Incident 1 – industrial wastewater seeping from the external tailings area in 4 locations on and outside the boundaries of the Kearl sites.
  • Incident 2 – an uncontrolled release of industrial wastewater from an overflow drainage pond.

The operator, Imperial Oil, and the Alberta Energy Regulator were responsible for the initial response to the incidents, including incident-specific monitoring requirements.