As the U.S. grapples with doubts about the safety of a proposed Keystone XL pipeline that would transport oil from the Alberta tar sands to the Gulf of Mexico, reports are emerging that a rupture in a Texas-owned pipeline sent more than 2 million gallons of oil-tainted wastewater into more than 100 acres of Alberta’s wetlands.
The pipeline, owned by Houston-based Apache Corp., transports wastewater used in the Alberta tar sand oil extraction operations. It contains a concoction of oil, salt, gas and minerals.
Apache spokesperson Paul Wyke said the content of the spilled liquid was “salty water,” otherwise known as saline water. Wyke also said it contained trace amounts of oil.
According to Pollutions Solutions, the Energy Resource Conservation Board indicated that the wastewater included 2,000 liters — roughly 528 gallons — of oil.
Oil isn’t necessarily the only concern for the impacted areas, since even saline water has the potential to be detrimental to the land.
“To counter the saline water one has to start by pumping such water off the land fully, the water can’t be left alone to evaporate on its own as it will lead to salt going down the soil, which would make the soil barren,” Natural Green Remedies states on its website.
Those living near the area are already seeing the devastation, claiming contamination occurred in areas inhabited by First Nations people.
“There are wildlife impacts and water and land impacts,” First Nations Dene Tha’ band councillor Sidney Chambaud told The Canadian Press. “Right now within that area the trees, the vegetation and the soil are dead. The water is contaminated.”
University of Alberta ecologist Suzanne Bayley claims the wastewater spill will have long-lasting impacts, regardless of the current cleanup efforts.
“It’s going to be a big dead-looking area for quite awhile, I mean certainly through this year and next,” she told the Canadian Broadcast Corporation.
Apache has not yet pinpointed the cause or date of the spill. An investigation is ongoing.
Transparency in reporting
The spill is considered one of the largest in the province’s history, and Canadians are questioning why it took so long for information regarding the spill to spread.
Spills — wastewater and oil — are nothing new for Alberta. Between 1975 and 2013, the region has experienced more than 23,000 water spills. The Apache spill ranks as the 10th-largest, however, according to Global News reports.
“It took just hours for the (National Energy Board) to put out a press release about the 12-barrel Kinder-Morgan spill in (British Columbia), yet it’s questionable if that local resident didn’t report the 60,000 barrel spill to the press that the Alberta government would have ever made it public knowledge,” Greenpeace Canada stated in a post.
Technically, Apache reported the spill June 1 to the Alberta government, yet there’s still uncertainty over when the spill actually occurred. The public was not alerted to the mess until a local resident tipped off a news station, prompting a story exposing the incident on June 6.
In a progress update released by Apache on June 20, the company indicated it was removing the saline water through pumping and filtration operations.
“Despite physical auditory wildlife deterrents, remediation workers have encountered one dead bird, which is believed to be a common American Bittern,” the update states.
The Energy Resources Conservation Board is now under attack for failing to inform residents of the spill. In an interview with the Calgary Herald, ERCB spokesman Bob Curren said regulators weren’t aware of the size of the spill until June 11.
“At the outset we were unaware that it was of this extent or volume,” he told the paper. “If we had known that upfront we would have made the announcement at that time. Once it was determined that the volumes were at this level we immediately moved to issue a news release.”
Regardless, Greenpeace Canada spokesperson Keith Stewart says spills including toxic wastewater should be made public immediately.
“This is a massive spill of toxics into one of the most important wetlands in Canada, if not the world,” Stewart told Global News. “The government shouldn’t be trying to hide these kinds of things.”
The more than 100-acre area impacted by the spill includes the traditional territory of the Dene Tha’ First Nations people.
“Dene Tha’ is worried that the spill may contain a number of materials, including hydrocarbons, sulphurous compounds, metals, radioactive materials and chemicals that have contaminated the water and may have killed fish, birds and wildlife,” Dene Tha’ said in a press release. “Dene Tha’ is also gravely concerned that the health of its members will be compromised if they exercise their Treaty 8 rights to harvest in the area.”
Treaty 8 rights give First Nations people rights to carry out traditional ways of life in the specific areas set aside. Protected areas allow First Nations people to hunt, fish and trap, without government or industry intrusion.
Considering the spill impacted the Dene Tha’ territory, the tribe is now speaking out against the government, claiming they were never alerted to the spill, even when the ERCB released information to the public.
After an oil spill affected its territory last year, the Dene Tha’ spoked with the ERCB about its impact and possible impact of future spills, claiming there was a need for energy “shut off” devices and volume monitors to halt and determine when spills occur.
“Had these precautions been in place, the Apache spill may not have occurred or contaminated such a large area,” the tribe said in a press release. “Given the increasing number of spills that have occurred in its territory recently, Dene Tha’ hopes that the Government of Alberta will require companies to implement more effective safety measures. Since there is a significant number of well sites, pipelines and other oil and gas infrastructure in its traditional territory, these measures are critical to ensure Dene Tha’ is able to safely exercise its Treaty 8 rights, without fear of contamination.”
Apache’s checkered history
In March 2012, Apache came under fire from the ERCB for injecting wastewater without approval, leading the board to issue a “high risk enforcement action,” according to Andrew Nikiforuk, contributing editor to The Tyee.
Despite the most recent spill and March incident, the company is poised to expand in Canada. In February 2012, Apache CEO G. Steven Farris said the company was in negotiations to expand along Canada’s west coast.
“Frankly, we’re somewhat past the polite introductions and that kind of stuff with respect to buyers,” he said while announcing the company’s 2012 fourth-quarter earnings, according to Alberta Oil Magazine. “We’re now in the throes of actual negotiations.”
Those negotiations pulled through. This year, the company announced it was set to spent more than $600 million in 2013 on expansions.
In terms of its influence, Apache keeps rather influential company. Its Kitimat liquefied natural gas, or LNG, facility on Canada’s west coast is co-owned with Chevron, considered one of the world’s six largest oil companies. The Kitimat refinery, located in British Columbia, would process Alberta tar sand oil and potentially oil from the shale gas basins of British Columbia.
“This agreement is a milestone for two principle reasons: Chevron is the premier LNG developer in the world today with longstanding relationships in key Asian markets, and the new structure will enable Apache to unlock the tremendous potential at Liard, one of the most prolific shale gas basins in North America,” Apache’s Farris said in a press release.
The most recent spill in Alberta is not likely to impact Apache’s business deal and continued operations in the province. The provincial government in Alberta has yet to state whether a fine will be issued to Apache.
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