Waiting for charges in year-old Husky spill

REGINA — A year after a major oil spill along the North Saskatchewan River fouled the water source for three Saskatchewan cities, an environmentalist says the company involved should get more than just ”a slap on the wrist.”

Peter Prebble with the Saskatchewan Environmental Society says he hopes Husky Energy will be held to account after one of its pipelines leaked 225,000 litres of heavy oil mixed with diluent onto the riverbank near Maidstone, Sask. About 40 per cent of the spill reached the river.

The oil plume flowed hundreds of kilometres downstream and forced the cities of North Battleford, Prince Albert and Melfort to shut off their water intakes for almost two months.

Saskatchewan’s Ministry of Justice isn’t commenting. It is still reviewing Husky’s response to alarms before the spill to decide whether charges should be laid.

“If it was just a matter of deciding on a fine, then I would think it wouldn’t be all that complicated at this point in time,” said Prebble.

“If the department is actually working on a larger settlement that involves upgrades to the safety of the oil pipeline system that Husky operates in the province, then that’s something that could take more time,” he said.

“If we don’t see that, I’ll be really concerned because Husky is a big company and the fine could just end up being a slap on the wrist.”

Husky (TSX:HSE) could face fines of up to $1 million a day under the Environmental Protection Act and $50,000 a day under the Pipelines Act in Saskatchewan.

There could also be federal charges under the Fisheries Act, said Dale Marshall, national program manager with the group Environmental Defence.

“It remains to be seen whether fines will be levied or not,” said Marshall, noting he would be surprised if they weren’t.

Marshall said it often takes more than a year for charges. He suggested they should be laid more quickly “in the interest of accountability and to send a clear message to other pipeline operators and oil companies that these matters are taken seriously and will be dealt with quickly.”

Marshall noted it took a couple of years before charges were laid in spills in Alberta.

Earlier this month, the Alberta Energy Regulator laid five charges against Nexen Energy (TSX:NXY) for a pipeline spill two years ago that was one of the largest in provincial history.

In June 2014, Plains Midstream Canada was fined $1.3 million after pleading guilty to environmental charges related to two spills: one in April 2011 and the other in June 2012.

In Saskatchewan, the statute of limitations for charges under The Environmental Management and Protection Act is three years. Marshall couldn’t say why it takes so long.

“There’s almost no doubt that if charges are laid, they will be determined through some sort of negotiation with the oil industry. I think that’s almost a given. They’ll have certain charges that will be laid in exchange for a guilty verdict.”

Part of the concern in the Husky spill is over how it was reported.

The government was first told by a member of the public who spotted oil on the river — not Husky. Government investigators later determined that the leak began July 20, the day before the spill was discovered.

They found that the pipeline’s alarms were warning of potential problems and continued until the line was shut down for scheduled maintenance at 7:15 a.m. on July 21.

Husky Energy has said pipeline monitoring indicated pressure anomalies at 8 p.m. on July 20 and the company started a shutdown at 6 a.m.

Husky’s own investigation determined that the pipeline buckled because of ground movement. The company has said it accepts full responsibility and is using what it learned to improve operations.

Prebble said Husky should be required to install the latest spill detection technology, have automatic pipeline shutoff valves and install heavier walled pipes at river crossings.

“Those kind of measures are going to be important requirements.”

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