Alberta's provincial flag flies in Ottawa, Monday July 6, 2020. Alberta's auditor general is scolding the province for failing to fix a program supposed to ensure industry cleans up after itself, six years after it was first told about the problems. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld

Auditor scolds Alberta over mine cleanup fund, how province handles polluted sites

Auditor scolds Alberta over mine cleanup fund, how province handles polluted sites

EDMONTON — Alberta’s auditor general is criticizing the government for failing to fix problems pointed out six years ago in a program that’s supposed to guarantee coal and oilsands mines clean up after themselves.

Doug Wylie says there’s so much confusion over who’s responsible for the government’s owncontaminated sites that there’s no stable funding to ensure that an abandoned coal mine in northern Alberta stays safe.

“There is an impact beyond accounting and process issues,” Wylie said in a briefing before his report was tabled in the legislature Thursday. “This impacts sites and it impacts people within the province.”

Among other issues, Wylie’s latest report revisits the Mine Financial Security Program first audited in 2015. It also looks at how the government handles contaminated sites for which it is responsible.

Wylie found the government hasn’t answered concerns about how company payments into the security fund are calculated. He found five ways in which it still allows companies to overstate their assets, underestimate the effects of oil price declines and delay payments.

“After six years of analysis, the department has not decided if and how the calculation should change,” the report says.

The government currently holds $1.5 billion in security on mining liabilities of $31.5 billion, says the report.

It also says there are problems with how the government handles contaminated sites when it can’t find the responsible party or when a site doesn’t fall within the purview of the Orphan Well Fund or any other management group. The government says there are 2,600 such sites with an environmental liability of $248 million.

Too often cleanup gets shuffled between Alberta Environment and Parks and the Alberta Energy Regulator, Wylie writes.

In the case of the old Smoky River coal mine near Grande Cache, the regulator stepped in on an emergency basis in 2018 to prevent the failure of a selenium-poisoned tailings pond. Alberta Environment told the regulator the work would be funded through the Environmental Protection and Enhancement Fund, then folded the fund back into general revenue, which left the regulator on the hook.

The same funding issue is preventing the regulator from fixing sinkholes caused by old coal mines in southern Alberta.

The report says the government has no risk assessment for its sites or analysis of their status. It doesn’t have individual cost estimates for cleanup or for keeping sites safe into the future.

For those reasons, Alberta’s estimates of its own environmental liabilities are suspect, said assistant auditor Eric Leonty.

“It could be more, as more information is available and it’s determined that the government is responsible for more sites,” he said.

In an emailed response, Alberta Environment spokesman Paul Hamnett said consultations on reforming the mine security program are to be held this summer.

“The review will ensure appropriate funds are being collected over the life of the project to cover reclamation liabilities and ensure continuous program improvement, including feedback from the (auditor),” he said.

The department is reviewing its contaminated sites to collect the information Wylie found lacking, he added.

“Alberta Environment and Parks and the Alberta Energy Regulator are working on a long-term solution that will bring clarity over the responsibility and funding for those sites.”

New Democrat environment critic Marlin Schmidt said his party tried to fix the mine security program when it was in power from 2015-2019. The report that resulted, he said, has been shelved.

“It’s sitting on the minister’s desk,” he said.

Schmidt said the fund needs more money while there’s money to be had.

“We don’t know how much longer these assets will be valuable.”

University of Calgary law professor Martin Olszynski pointed out the government has already eased payments for the oilsands in response to last summer’s oil price collapse.

“At essentially every turn, the (program) is designed to favour oilsands operators over taxpayers,” he wrote. “Given the (United Conservative Party’s) track record … there is absolutely no reason to think or hope that they will address this problem meaningfully in the upcoming review.”

Regan Boychuk of the Alberta Liabilities Disclosure Project said the problem is simple: the fund needs to collect more money.

“Billions of dollars should already be in the bank from these highly profitable companies,” he said.

“The only thing that’s going to clean up the oilsands is the revenue from producing that bitumen. We can either save the money for that cleanup while that money is still coming out of the ground, or we can wait until they’re done producing.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published June 10, 2021.

— Follow @row1960 on Twitter

Bob Weber, The Canadian Press


Just Posted

Mental health support centre in central Alberta to receive funding

Shoppers Drug Mart is lending support to the Canadian Mental Health Association.… Continue reading

Downtown Red Deer was packed with people who lined the streets to watch the Westerner Days parade on Wednesday. (Photo by SUSAN ZIELINSKI/Advocate staff)
Westerner Days parade cancelled, full details on modified event coming June 28

The 2021 edition of Westerner Days will look much different than any… Continue reading

City council wants to hear from the public at a May 25 hearing about whether the temporary homeless shelter should be allowed to remain in the downtown for another year. (Advocate file photo).
City of Red Deer staff to recommend another extension to allow operations at current temporary shelter site

Following some more research city administration has received no other new locations… Continue reading

A scene from the short Western ‘Cheaters, Robbers and Outlaws,’ written and directed by Jason Steele, with support from Telus Storyhive. (Contributed image)
Red Deerians make ‘Cheaters, Robbers and Outlaws’ short Western film

Writer and director Jason Steele received a $20,000 Storyhive grant from Telus

Residents in several neighbourhoods reported little to no water pressure Tuesday night. (File photo by Advocate staff)
City hall to reopen for payments and customer service

Red Deer City Hall will reopen on June 21 for utility and… Continue reading

Harley Hay
Harley Hay: You can’t trust Mondays

Monday isn’t my favourite day. It insists on occurring right after a… Continue reading

Montreal Canadiens goaltender Carey Price stops Vegas Golden Knights' William Karlsson as he is covered by Canadiens' Joel Edmundson during first period of Game 3 of the NHL Stanley Cup semifinal Friday, June 18, 2021 in Montreal. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Paul Chiasson
Andreson’s timely scoring, Price’s goaltending give Habs 2-1 series lead over Vegas

Canadiens 3 Golden Knights 2 (OT) (Montreal leads series 2-1) MONTREAL —… Continue reading

Atlanta Hawks guard Trae Young (11) is defended by Philadelphia 76ers guard Ben Simmons (25) as he looks for an opening during the first half of Game 6 of an NBA basketball Eastern Conference semifinal series Friday, June 18, 2021, in Atlanta. (AP Photo/John Bazemore)
Curry, Harris help 76ers stay alive, hold off Hawks 104-99

76ers 104 Hawks 99 (Series tied 3-3) ATLANTA — Seth Curry hit… Continue reading

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is seen during a joint news conference following the EU-Canada Summit, in Brussels, Belgium, Tuesday June 15, 2021. Trudeau says Canada is on track now to have 68 million doses delivered by the end of July, which is more than enough to fully vaccinate all 33.2 million Canadians over the age of 12. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld
Vaccine deliveries enough to fully vaccinate all eligible Canadians by end of July

OTTAWA — Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s promise of a two-dose fall is… Continue reading

Marco Mendicino, Minister of Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship, speaks during a press conference in Ottawa, Thursday, May 13, 2021. Mendicino has announced a new policy to help settle 500 refugees and their families in a news conference today. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick
Canada to welcome 45,000 refugees this year: Immigration Minister Marco Mendicino

Immigration Minister Marco Mendicino announced plans to expedite applications and increase the… Continue reading

Louis Oosthuizen, of South Africa, plays his shot from the third tee during the second round of the U.S. Open Golf Championship, Friday, June 18, 2021, at Torrey Pines Golf Course in San Diego. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)
Bland leads at Torrey and shows the US Open is truly open

SAN DIEGO — The U.S. Open prides itself on being the most… Continue reading

The Prime Minister's car waits outside the National Microbiology Laboratory in Winnipeg Tuesday, May 19, 2009. The head of the Public Health Agency of Canada is showing no sign he'll release unredacted documents about the firing of two scientists at Canada's highest security laboratory — despite the prospect of being publicly shamed in the House of Commons for his refusal to turn them over. THE CANADIAN PRESS/John Woods
PHAC head maintains he’s bound by law not to release docs on fired scientists

OTTAWA — The head of the Public Health Agency of Canada is… Continue reading

Chief Public Health Officer Theresa Tam listens to a question during a news conference, in Ottawa, Tuesday, Jan. 12, 2021. The number of confirmed COVID-19 cases attributed to the highly contagious Delta variant grew in Canada this week. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld
Public health agency reports spike in confirmed cases of Delta variant in Canada

OTTAWA — The number of confirmed COVID-19 cases attributed to the highly… Continue reading

Most Read