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Alberta Officials Took 12 Hours to Notify First Nation of Potentially Toxic Hydrogen Sulphide Leak

J Hazard/Wikipedia

When a cloud of toxic chemicals began wafting toward the First Nations hamlet of Fort McKay from Syncrude Canada’s Mildred Lake tar sands/oil sands plant 10 kilometres away, it took officials 12 hours to notify the community—a massive health and safety failure that critics blame on the fossil industry’s takeover of regulatory oversight in the Alberta oilpatch.

In the early hours of June 20, 2016, in the rush to get Mildred Lake restarted after the devastating wildfire that swept through the Fort McMurray region earlier that spring, “an estimated 10,400 barrels of untreated petrochemicals were released into a waste pond,” report National Observer, the Star Calgary, and the Toronto Star, in an investigation released earlier this week. “It created a plume of toxic air that could cause headaches and possibly long-term health risks for anyone in its path.”

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The cloud “contained hydrogen sulphide, which can cause respiratory issues at lower concentrations and death at higher ones,” the news report states. “It also held high amounts of hydrocarbons—a group of compounds, some dangerous, found in crude oil.” Officials couldn’t tell whether the plume included toxic toluene or carcinogenic benzene, and “they also couldn’t determine if the amount of toxic chemicals in the plume would trigger an emergency until it reached Fort McKay, 10 hours after it was released.”

At 11:30 AM, 9½ hours after the cloud formed, Fort McKay First Nation staffer Ryan Abel emailed colleagues with the warning that “I personally cannot stay outside the (office) and breath [sic] the air outside, it is pretty bad.” In an email released under access to information laws, he added: “Definitely going to cause headaches, etc. for those breathing it in.”

Two hours later, Health Canada got around to issuing an air quality advisory for the area. Air quality monitors ultimately recorded hydrogen sulphide levels at the plant boundary that were three times the provincial standard—and maximum hydrocarbon levels in the Wood Buffalo region about 75 times background levels.

“Insiders from within the Alberta Energy Regulator (AER) would later say the incident highlights one of the key problems facing the oil-rich province, which has long claimed to have the strongest environmental regulations in the world. They say pressure and lobbying from industry and economic interests are trumping science and strong oversight, putting public health and safety at risk,” Observer reports.

“The incident also highlights gaps in air quality monitoring, despite federal and provincial efforts in recent years to improve how governments are overseeing an industry in a region that holds the world’s third-largest reserves of crude oil after Saudi Arabia and Venezuela.”

But the response to the Mildred Lake release hardly inspired confidence in that effort: After the incident, the AER fired Chief Scientist Monique Dubé, “a toxicologist who, according to internal records, tried to warn the community of the danger,” and was the author of an unreleased report on the release, Observer recounts. “The regulator then sought to replace her with a job posting that called for someone with lower qualifications.”

The news investigation recounts years of “foul-smelling air pollution” in a community that is largely surrounded by tar sands/oil sands facilities, with 11 plants within a 30-kilometre radius and more planned or proposed.

“A post-mortem report leaked to National Observer and the Star said the incident occurred after some oilsands operators ‘pushed back’ against the AER’s efforts to coordinate the resumption of industrial operations in a safe and orderly fashion,” Observer writes. “Insiders at the regulator said the industry was lobbying the regulator to get plants restarted as fast as possible.”

As the toxic plume got closer to Fort McKay, “AER staff clashed over whether they should warn the community, say insiders interviewed by the investigation. They didn’t have the data to know if the toxins in the plume would put human health in danger.”

“We really didn’t know what the risks were going to be (for Fort McKay),” said one official who was familiar with the process, who declined to be identified for fear of professional reprisal. “There really was no human health risk-based decision-making at the regulator. It was either you killed someone or you didn’t.”

Syncrude didn’t notify the community until an hour after the cloud arrived. That was “far too late under these circumstances,” Abel wrote in an email.

“Since then, Syncrude says it has updated its protocols for communicating with Fort McKay and restarting the plant. The AER said it takes its environmental responsibilities seriously and is working to improve overall air quality in the area—a longstanding issue for the community,” Observer states. “But oilsands operators are exempt from rules set by the AER that compel companies to warn communities if they release toxic substances, so Syncrude faced no consequences from the regulator.”

The Observer/Star investigation recounts steps by the provincial regulator to keep any references to the Mildred Lake release out of a September, 2016 air quality report that was under development when the incident occurred, then suspend work on the incident report after the air quality study was published. “The AER is conflicted. Its dual mandate to both grow the industry and protect the environment means having to choose one over the other,” said McMurray Métis president Gail Gallupe in a statement responding to Dubé’s firing.

“With (Dubé) as chief environment scientist, we knew that we had a serious voice for the environment within the AER. We worry now that her voice is gone.”The full investigative report on National Observer goes into much more detail on the Mildred Lake incident. Please read [2]!