Environmental groups say $16K fine for pipeline spill not even a slap on wrist

An energy company with a history of pipeline problems has been fined and warned by Alberta’s regulator for a 2013 spill that sent millions of litres of salty water into the muskeg.

EDMONTON — An energy company with a history of pipeline problems has been fined and warned by Alberta’s regulator for a 2013 spill that sent millions of litres of salty water into the muskeg.

But environmental groups say Apache Canada’s $16,500 penalty isn’t even a slap on the wrist.

“It’s more like a wave in the general direction of a wrist,” Keith Stewart of Greenpeace said Tuesday.

Sometime during the first week in May 2013, an Apache pipeline in the Zama region of northern Alberta began to leak process water heavily contaminated with salt. That leak continued until it had released 15 million toxic litres into the surrounding muskeg.

The company finally reported the leak to the regulator on June 1 of that year.

It was the latest in a series of problems for the company. The regulator reported 12 “high-risk enforcement actions” between 2009 and 2013, most of which involved the release of hydrocarbons or other fluids.

“The AER investigation revealed that Apache lacked adequate procedures, training, communication, and supervision that contributed to the failure to detect, evaluate, and take immediate action concerning the pipeline leak and subsequent release of produced water,” the regulator said in its report.

Apache was fined on June 27.

On Tuesday, the regulator ordered the company to hire an independent auditor to check how it maintains pipeline safety. The auditor’s recommendations must be in place by the end of the year. As well, Apache has until October to tell the regulator how it plans to prevent future releases.

Apache has already complied, the regulator said.

The regulator noted the $16,500 penalty was the maximum allowed under the law.

But Stewart pointed out the penalty amounts to about one-tenth of a cent per litre. That type of administrative fine isn’t enough to deter companies from cutting corners, he said.

“If they don’t actually proceed with prosecution, they’re sending the message that this is no big deal. What they’re saying is that you can mess up badly and there’s no real cost.”

Stewart also said the amount of water in the spill throws doubt on industry assurances that modern, high-tech tools allow crews to spot leaks immediately.

“They keep telling us they have this fancy technology which they can detect spills in 10 minutes, yet this one went on for 27 days.”

In a release, the regulator points out it is investigating other Apache incidents and that further enforcement is possible.

Late Tuesday, Apache issued a statement saying it will comply with the enforcement action and is working closely with the Alberta Energy Regulator to meet the obligations outlined and to ensure the integrity of Apache-operated pipelines.

“Apache takes its environmental and regulatory responsibility very seriously,” said the release from media relations advisor Paul Wyke. “Pipeline integrity on our gathering systems is a critical component of meeting that responsibility.”

He said prior to the enforcement action, the company had set up a group to look for ways to improve its pipeline operations.

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