Canada's Imperial ordered to fix seepage from oil sands tailing ponds

By Nia Williams

(Reuters) - Canada's Imperial Oil on Wednesday said it is working with the Alberta Energy Regulator (AER) to fix industrial wastewater seepage from tailings ponds at its Kearl oil sands project that has been ongoing for months.

The AER issued an environmental protection order to Imperial on Monday, giving the Calgary-based company until the end of this week to submit a plan to intercept and contain the seepage before the spring snowmelt, and until the end of February to figure out how to fix the problem.

The order steps up regulatory enforcement from the AER, which previously issued Imperial with two non-compliance notices and conducted site inspections.

Kearl is a 240,000-barrel-per-day bitumen mine in northern Alberta, and the wastewater, or tailings, from its industrial processes include dissolved iron and arsenic.

The AER said the seepage, first reported in May 2022 after Imperial spotted pools of discoloured surface water, involves industrial wastewater leaking from the external tailings area in four locations on and outside the boundaries of the Kearl site.

Imperial, which is majority-owned by Exxon Mobil Corp, said it has been working to determine the cause of the seepage and that the issue is related to gaps within the seepage interception system.

"We regret this incident and are making every effort to learn from it and apply preventative measures," Imperial spokesperson Lisa Schmidt said in an email, adding that the company has been working with the regulator since the leak was first identified and there are no reported impacts to fish or wildlife in the area.

However, Imperial on Saturday also reported a separate leak of more than 5,000 cubic metres of tailings water from one of its holding ponds.

Schmidt said the cause of that release is still being determined and Imperial has notified local communities.

"Some of the actions that we plan to implement are additional monitoring and control measures, including water catchment features, and additional monitoring and pumping wells," she said.

(Reporting by Nia Williams; Editing by Paul Simao)