No Spill, But Still No Comfort
It was algae, not oil, but for the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation, Alberta’s water monitoring system remains a worry
Tim Querengesser is senior editor with Alberta Venture. He once snowmobiled to the Arctic Ocean to interview a guy in elf shoes about reindeer. Really. Peace Pipe is his critical look at the intersection between Indigenous peoples and industry. Email Tim
by Tim Querengesser
It’s official: the oily sheen and dark colouration to river water that many Athabasca Chipewyan First Nations members began discovering about a week ago in the Athabasca River is not a petrochemical spill, but rather an unprecedented algae bloom.
“The algae was likely caused by run off during record high waters and set into motion by the record high temperatures that followed,” the First Nation said in a release, issued on Thursday. “When the algae blooms died they released an oily sheen into the river that resembled a petrochemical substance. It is conclusive the sheen was not a petrochemical in nature.”
On Friday of last week, after several first-hand sightings of an oily sheen on the river in several locations, the First Nation raised the alarm of a potential spill. The Alberta government responded on Saturday, sending its spill response team to inspect the river by helicopter, sampling water and contacting industry to inquire if they had detected petrochemical releases from their operations, said Jessica Potter, a government spokesperson. Potter noted that industrial operations along the river informed the government that they had not detected a leak. “Between us and the [Alberta Energy] regulator, all industry was asked to do a thorough check of their operations, just in case there was a spill, and they all came back negative for that,” Potter said (in an interview before the algae bloom was determined as the cause of the sheen).
The algae bloom currently in the Athabasca is similar to blooms that have appeared unexpectedly in the past in Florida, Australia and Manitoba, said Eriel Deranger, a spokesperson for the First Nation. In all of these instances, she noted, the oily sheen that the bloom appears to produce – and which Athabasca First Nation members photographed – has provoked worries amongst people that an oil spill had occurred.
But though the confirmation that there is no spill is welcome news for users of the river, including the First Nation, the appearance of the bloom is not. “This kind of algae, it’s never been seen like this in this region before,” said Deranger. She noted that First Nation traditional knowledge also informs science that this has never happened in history.
What is perhaps more troubling for the First Nation, Deranger said, is that the process that Alberta has gone through to determine what was causing the oily sheen on the river raises questions about the structure of our water monitoring system. She noted that the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation has been pushing, to as she said “no avail,” to be included in the monitoring system, in a co-management arrangement similar to those in force in the Yukon, the Northwest Territories, Nunavut and northern Quebec. “When this all went down, government didn’t immediately go on site like we did,” she said. “Their immediate reaction was to ask us what we’d seen, and then go to industry. It shouldn’t be their first automatic response to let industry dictate the response.”
The difficult thing for the First Nation and for industry in this instance is that their roles in water management are controlled by the provincial government. While industry has been given the task of monitoring its own operations for spills, the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation has not been granted a place to participate within that regulatory system to monitor the water, despite being the very group that first sees the effects of any spills or accidents as it is downstream from much of the oil sands operations near Fort McMurray.
Asked about industry overseeing its own compliance with water safety, Potter said: “That is part of our regulatory system. They’re self-reporting. It’s a requirement with their approval.”
But Athabasca Chipewyan chief Allan Adam wants to see changes. “The government is spending millions of dollars on a world class monitoring system that has failed to integrate First Nations communities into its planning and implementation,” Adam said in a press release. “We hope that our rapid response to the incident on the river is an indication that we are more then [sic] capable partners as stewards and caretakers and valuable assets in being first responders and monitors in the region.”