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NEWS: Alberta pipeline spill raises water impact concerns

Various media reports tell us that 28,000 barrels (4.5 million litres) of crude oil spilled from the Rainbow pipeline, owned by Plains Midstream Canada, into wetlands near Peace River before the flow was shut down on April 29. The spill site is about 14 kilometres from Little Buffalo, a community of 350 people where Lubicon First Nation live.

The Canadian Press reports, “A school in the area of a massive oil pipeline leak in northern Alberta (was closed) after students complained of headaches and nausea from gassy, tarry smells.” And despite the proximity of the spill to the school, the timing of the spill and the onset of the sickness, and the obvious heavy smell of the spill, “Davis Sheremata, spokesman for Alberta’s Energy Resources Conservation Board, denied that problems in Little Buffalo were connected to the leak.”

Invariably a pipeline spill will have some impact on water. While officials spun the story that the spill did not reach flowing water (it was all of 300 metres from it), the reality is that the crude oil did impact the wetlands in the area and a beaver pond. In fact, it appears that it was a beaver dam that stopped the oil from spreading even further. Reportedly six beavers were killed in this incident. And as skimmers try to remove the oil from the water, measures are being taken to keep other mammals and amphibians away from the spill site and a similar death. And there is real concern that the oil could soak into the subsoil or groundwater and cause further contamination that take years to clean-up.

Highlighting our responsibility to Mother Earth, Assembly of First Nations National Chief Shawn Atleo has called for an independent investigation of the incident, as well as for urgent measures and regulations for when they happen. Greenpeace called for full disclosure of the incident and stricter pipeline inspection rules. Among other demands, the Support the Lubicon Cree called for an independent environmental assessment of the spill that would be reported to the community. And newly-elected Green Party MP Elizabeth May called for an immediate investigation, stated that this incident was a violation of the federal Fisheries Act, and noted that it raises concerns about the existing – and planned – pipelines across the country.

But rest at ease, the Edmonton Journal has reported, “In 2009, Alberta’s pipeline industry had a record-low pipeline failure rate of 1.7 per 1,000 kilometres of pipeline, bettering the previous record low of 2.1 set in both 2008 and 2007.”

Across the country, the International Joint Commission has raised concerns about the risk to water given the existing pipelines within one kilometre of the Great Lakes that carry natural gas, crude oil, gas liquids, jet fuel, diesel, propane and butane. And more are planned along Lake Superior, Lake Michigan and Lake Erie to carry tar sands oil to refineries on the Great Lakes. The IJC is concerned about lax monitoring procedures, inaccurate spill detection and poor cross-border communication and co-operation.

Then there’s the Enbridge Northern Gateway pipeline that would carry tar sands oil to the coast of British Columbia for export. The 1,200-kilometre bitumen and condensate pipeline would cross hundreds of waterways putting them at direct or indirect risk. Alberta’s “record-low pipeline failure rate” of 1.7 per 1,000 kilometres of pipeline doesn’t seem so reassuring given the length of the Northern Gateway.

And there’s the proposed 3,190 kilometre Keystone XL pipeline that would transport tar sands oil to refineries and markets in the United States. It crosses the vast but shallow Ogallala Aquifer, the Niobrara River, and other rivers, wetlands and water sources. In an (inadequate) effort to reassure, TransCanada, the company that would build the pipeline, says, “Keystone will employ multiple safeguards to prevent a pipeline release. The chance of a spill occurring is very low and if a spill occurred, the volume is likely to be relatively small.”

For additional commentary on the spill in Alberta, please see Council of Canadians Prairies organizer Scott Harris’ blog at