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Analyzing how two energy companies handled a communications problem

It took four months for state officials to notify the public of a radioactive water leak near Minneapolis, MN.

A similar situation unfolded in Alberta, Canada, where it took provincial officials nine months to notify the public of wastewater seepage from an oil sands mine.

Both cases are recent; they occurred in 2022 with companies notifying regulatory agencies right away, but the public was notified in 2023. As a professional communicator, I’m interested in these questions:

  1. Did the delay of public notification hurt the reputation of the companies?
  2. Analyzing both communication responses, who did it better?
  3. What constitutes reasonable disclosure to the public, and who decides what is and isn’t of public interest?

Before we begin, it’s important to note I have done my best to reduce my bias around these communication strategies. This research is done strictly to compare the communication responses of similar situations. I hold no opinion around the companies or their energy production. I live in Alberta, Canada and enjoy the benefits of our energy production as much as other folks around the world. My research and opinions are my own and are undertaken with an academic, critical thought process.

The story that piqued my interest was Xcel Energy’s spill in Minnesota. It’s linked here, but the gist is that on Nov. 22, 2022 Xcel Energy discovered 400,000 gallons of tritium water leaked into the Mississippi River. On March 16, 2023, information went public.

While researching Xcel’s situation, I heard about a wastewater leak in the northern part of Alberta. Imperial Oil’s Kearl Oil Sands Mine found wastewater seepage from one of its tailings ponds on May 19, 2022. Then on Feb. 4, 2023 a second, larger overflow of 5.3 million litres of wastewater was reported to officials. The public was notified by the Alberta Energy Regulator (AER) through an environmental protection order issued on Feb. 6, 2023.

As someone with experience in both sides of this communication situation: journalism, and crisis and issues management, I was professionally interested in how everything unfolded.

I focussed my time on the communication strategies used to mitigate damage to each company’s reputation. We could spend a lot of time on this; energy regulation is complex and so is the work that brings energy to the world. I’m more interested in a comparison of the two responses.

Let’s get into it.

In Minneapolis’s case, it looks to me that news sparked the need for a response. From what I can see, Minnesota Public Radio (MPR) was the first to report on the tritum leak on March 16 with this headline: Xcel: Radioactive water leaked in November at Monticello nuclear plant. That story caused a ripple of news interest, which reached as far as the Washington Post and into Canada through the Associated Press.

In Alberta, it looks like AER’s environmental protection order sparked the need for a response. On Feb. 6 the order was issued. On Feb. 8, The Narwhal, reported on the situation, which rippled to other news organizations. I found it interesting that the news story is what caused an issue for Xcel, while the regulator’s announcement in Alberta is what necessitated a response from Imperial.

Was the lack of disclosure a crisis or a reputational issue? Issues and crisis communication literature suggests an assessment is needed to determine the severity of a situation. There’s a great peer-reviewed article by Caroline Koewn-McMullan discussing crises, titled, Crisis: When does a molehill become a mountain? where she says a crisis as something that has a high threat, requires short decision-making times, and has an element of surprise. It is also, interestingly, an event that could have positive implications for an organization. It feels counterintuitive, but these issues are also opportunities for learning, which can help an organization. As Koewn-McMullan puts it:

This point is well illustrated in Chinese where the symbol depicting a crisis, wei-ji, is a combination of two words, danger and opportunity.

So, the threat is relatively low, the decision-making process is longer, and while there was some surprise, I don’t think either company was left in the lurch. Under these ideas, Xcel’s spill isn’t a crisis, nor is Imperial Oil’s. Based on Koewn-McMullan’s observations, the companies are facing issues that need to be dealt with rather than crises.

There are two factors that cause a crisis or an issue. In his paper, Deep and Surface Threats: Conceptual and Practical Implications for “Crisis” vs. “Problem”, W. Timothy Coombs says it’s the bottom line, the financial hurt businesses face that makes something a crisis. For Xcel and Imperial there is a financial hurt to their operations but it’s not something that will completely shutter the companies. So, they’re facing a reputational issue with some financial hurt.

The companies, hoping to mitigate negative reputational effects used language that minimized the risk. From Xcel:

Xcel Energy took swift action to contain the leak to the plant site, which poses no health and safety risk to the local community or the environment. 

In addition to Xcel Energy’s comments, a release from Minnesota Pollution Control Agency provides with a link to the U.S. Federal Regulatory Commission’s page on tritium. It’s a very dry read.

From Imperial:

The first incident, reported earlier in 2022, involves industrial wastewater seeping from the External Tailings Area in four locations both on and outside the boundaries of the Kearl site. At this time, there are no public impacts.

Truthfully, the risk to the public does appear quite low in comparison to the potential dangers of, say, a nuclear plant meltdown, or a toxic spill into the drinking water supply. Despite this, some issue prioritization could have been used.  

Xcel’s short and to-the-point replies, with links to a technobabble-filled federal website seem aimed at stalling or blocking public outrage. The issue I see coming out of this for Xcel is whether further leaks occur. Old news stories have a habit of biting an organization in the butt. Oh, wait, a second spill did happen, which reminded the public about the first spill; you know, the one where the public wasn’t notified. Here’s what the company president had to say as a result of the second leak:

I think one of our lessons here is even though we followed the proper formal notifications, we have an opportunity to do a better job being transparent with our neighbors. That’s certainly a lesson we take from this.

For Imperial Oil, the problem came from a few sides: from their First Nation neighbours, from the public, and from federal regulators. The latter voiced displeasure at not being included in the regulatory communication framework. This added pressure on Imperial Oil to communicate with stakeholders, and while I’m positive it’s been stressful, the company has taken excellent steps to mitigate the issue with regular updates, FAQs, and when the next updates will be.   

There is one difference between Xcel’s language and Imperial’s. Can you spot it?

We continue to hold in-community meetings to share information directly with communities and hear their feedback. We have shared our mitigation and monitoring plans with communities and have offered for them to complete their own independent reviews of our technical work. We are also seeking input from communities on our plans to improve our communications going forward.

If you said, “seeking input from communities” then you would be right. Imperial doesn’t necessarily apologize, but the offer to work with communities suggests they’re action-oriented. It’s like they’re saying, “Yeah, we messed up. We get it. Want to know what we’re doing to fix that?”

Xcel Energy said no such thing.


What’s the risk to the companies if they apologize? It has to do with ownership of the problem, which could see legal or financial implications. Coombs wrote a piece with Sherry J. Holladay called, Comparing Apology to Equivalent Crisis Response Strategies: Clarifying Apology’s Role and Value in Crisis Communication.

Accepting responsibility is the centerpiece of an apology and makes it the most expensive response financially for an organization.

Basically, use apologies wisely.

Update: Imperial Oil and the Energy Regulator did apologize. When I was first researching this story I missed CBC’s stories on a public hearing in Ottawa about the Kearl Oil Sands spill.

Here’s what I see from their apology; it was the community outrage that set the tone for their “regret” and apology and there was good reason for it. Through their research, Coombs and Halladay found that in low to moderate levels of crisis, non-victim stakeholders accepted statements of sympathy, compensation, or apology, equally.

In the U.S. neither Minnesota Pollution Control, nor Xcel issued an apology of any kind, which suggests they weighed the pros and cons of an actual apology and decided against it. The problem Xcel created for itself is that now they have to respond, not necessarily about the actual tritium, but the fact that no one was told. This is a direct hit on their reputation that could grow if leaks continue. As such they did shut down the nuclear plant to fix the spill.

In Alberta, there also was no apology until the public hearing; the company has a dedicated web page with public updates and steps they’re taking to mitigate the problem. It’s a proactive response as opposed to Xcel’s “whoops”.

So, are these situations crises for the companies? No. Xcel and Imperial Oil are able to continue operations.

So, to go back to my original questions, did the lack of public disclosure hurt the companies’ reputations? In the short term, absolutely. The public response, regulatory order, and news stories were enough that they had to proceed with a damage control plan. For the long term, I don’t see these issues hanging around, especially for Xcel Energy.

What I find interesting is how regulators could have helped in this situation. Working together, the companies and regulators could have delivered joint information with key messages around transparency, keeping public trust, and providing testing results. Had the groups done this from the beginning they could have had more control over messaging, and potentially, opportunity to sway public opinion.

Here’s why I suggest a proactive response: the information came out regardless of any hopes to see no publicity and both companies and Alberta’s regulator needed to do some damage control. Basically, treat situations such as this as if the public will find out. Tony Jacques makes an important point about issue management in his paper, Issue management and crisis management: An integrated, non-linear, relational construct article. He suggests that if some things are left unchecked, they can become actual crises. Researching Xcel Energy and Imperial Oil’s situation, Jacques is correct.

Who responded best? Very clearly Imperial Oil did. Regular online information sessions, with timelines and public water tests put them as the clear winner. If another spill occurs, they already have a working response in place. I see Imperial’s response as them understanding their wei-ji, their opportunity. Xcel Energy on the other hand, meh. I still don’t get a feeling of sincerity from the company. Time will tell, but I don’t see Xcel Energy doing much more unless the regulator or public lays on the pressure, or they have a more serious spill.

All of this boils down to my final question: What constitutes or necessitates public disclosure?

You could blame the companies, however, the regulators share some of the responsibility here although in the United States it appears the regulator dogged responsibility. But they’re the ones who are the so-called watchdogs. From the outside looking in, it appears the public wasn’t notified in order to avoid panic or concern, or possibly awkward headlines. That didn’t work out so well for anyone. Perhaps the question shouldn’t be, “What necessitates public disclosure?” Rather, it should be, “Does disclosure increase the trust of our neighbours and stakeholders?”

It’s a fine line with disclosure. I’m assuming both companies assessed the situation and wondered if doing so would unnecessarily shed light on what they felt was a small issue. I guess hindsight is 20/20 but if anything, these situations are good reminders that sometimes it’s better to take the bull by the horns and let the pieces fall where they may.  

***This post was updated Aug. 23 to clarify that Imperial Oil and AER apologized during a public hearing.***

  • From NPR: A nuclear power plant leaked contaminated water in Minnesota. Here’s what we know
  • From the Associated Press: 400,000 gallons of radioactive water leaked from a nuclear plant in Minnesota
  • City News Toronto (from the Associated Press): Minnesota nuclear plant shuts down for leak; residents worry
  • Fortune: Nuclear power plant 35 miles outside Minneapolis leaked radioactive waste but officials waited months to notify public
  • Bloomberg: Nuclear Plant Near Minneapolis Reports Leak of Tainted Water
  • Global News Canada, you’ll notice that 1.5 million litres sounds bigger than 400,000 gallons, although they’re the same amount just in different units: Nuclear power plant leaked 1.5M litres of radioactive water in Minnesota
  • The Daily Mining Gazette: Regulators monitor tritium leak at Minnesota nuclear plant.