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Major pipeline spill impacts Lubicon community of Little Buffalo

A major oil pipeline spill first detected on April 29 in northern Alberta has leaked an estimated 28,000 barrels of crude near the Lubicon community of Little Buffalo. The leak, from the Rainbow pipeline owned by a subsidiary of Houston-based Plains All American Pipeline LP, is the largest leak in Alberta since 1975, and according to the Globe & Mail has released 40 per cent more oil than the 20,000 barrels that leaked from an Enbridge Inc. pipe last summer, in a spill that fouled a Michigan river and cost that company hundreds of millions to clean up.

Residents of Little Buffalo have reported serious impacts in the days after the spill, including odours so strong that the principal of the local school has indefinitely closed the school over health concerns.

A release by the Indigenous Environmental Network describes the symptoms the community is experiencing, describing  that “community members, including school children, continue to experience nausea, burning eyes and headaches.”

The release continues:

Instead of attending an in-person community meeting, the Alberta Energy Resources Conservation Board (ERCB) faxed a one-page fact sheet to Little Buffalo School. The fact sheet indicates that tens of thousands of barrels of crude oil, or 4,500 cubic metres, has spread into nearby stands of “stagnant water.” The spill, April 29 at 7:30 a.m., occurred only 300 metres from local waterways. The ERCB said the spill has been contained, but community members report that the oil is still leaking into the surrounding forest and bog. The ERCB also said to the community that there is “no threat to public safety as a result of the leak.” Yet people are still getting sick, the local school has been shut down and children ordered to stay at home. An investigation into the incident is underway.

“It has been four days since classes were suspended due to the noxious odours in the air. The children and staff at the school were disorientated, getting headaches and feeling sick to their stomachs,” said Brian Alexander, the principle of Little Buffalo School. “We tried to send the children outside to get fresh air as it seemed worse in the school but when we sent them out they were getting sick as well.

“The company and the ERCB have given us little information in the past five days.  What we do know is that the health of our community is at stake,” said Chief Steve Noskey. “Our children cannot attend school until there is a resolution, The ERCB is not being accountable to our community; they did not even show up to our community meeting to inform us of the unsettling situation we are dealing with. The company is failing to provide sufficient information to us so we can ensure that the health and safety of our community is protected.”

The ERCB fact sheet states that air monitors are in place on site and have “detected no hydrocarbon levels above Alberta Ambient Air Quality guidelines.” But this is little consolation for a community that is scared to breathe the air. Veronica Okemow has six children, the youngest one attending the school, and she is very worried. “We are deeply concerned about the health effects on the community,” Okemow said. “It is a scary thing when your children are feeling sick from the air. People are scared to breathe in the fumes.”

The spill comes a month after the 20-year anniversary of the March 26, 1990 United Nations Human Rights Committee ruling that Canada had violated the human rights of the Lubicon Cree, an Indigenous people who have lived for centuries in what is now the province of Alberta. The ruling was based on evidence that Canada had failed to recognize and protect Lubicon rights to their lands and that intensive oil and gas development had devastated the Lubicon economy and way of life.

The group Support the Lubicon Cree has issued the following action call to support the Lubicon following the spill:

Please help demand that the ERCB and Plains Midstream meet Lubicon needs now. The Lubicon require the following:
1. ERCB to attend Lubicon community meetings to effectively answer community members’ questions
2. Independent environmental assessment reporting to community
3. Lubicon fly-over of the spill-affected area to survey immediate damage to traditional territory
4. Health response team stationed in Lubicon community immediately to respond to those who continue to get sick from the air, especially children

Note that other First Nations and communities in the area have not even been informed of the spill

Contact ERCB as soon as possible via phone, fax, or email:

Dan McFadyen, Chairman
Energy Resources Conservation Board
Suite 1000, 250 – 5 Street SW
Calgary, Alberta   T2P 0R4
Chairman’s phone: (403) 297-2215
FAX: (403) 297-7336

Also direct pressure to Alberta’s Premier:

Ed Stelmach
Office of the Premier
Room 307, Legislature Building
10800 – 97th Avenue
Edmonton, Alberta  T5K 2B7
Fax: (780) 427-1349