Aggressive oil spill clean up can do more harm than good: study

A pipeline rupture under the Red Deer River just over two years ago carries important implications across the oil and gas industry, including for the proposed Keystone and Northern Gateway pipeline projects, says a river researcher from the University of Lethbridge.

A pipeline rupture under the Red Deer River just over two years ago carries important implications across the oil and gas industry, including for the proposed Keystone and Northern Gateway pipeline projects, says a river researcher from the University of Lethbridge.

Professor Stewart Rood and his research team were given a unique opportunity to analyze results from the cleanup after flood debris ruptured a pipeline carrying light sour crude under the Red Deer River, just downstream from Sundre.

The spill was discovered on June 7, 2012, at the river’s confluence with Jackson Creek. There was a pool of crude at the mouth of the creek, so there was an assumption that the spilled had occurred there, Rood said. The pipeline actually broke further upstream, near the Sundre sewer treatment plant, he said.

The result was the release of about 450,000 litres of crude into the river, upstream of the Gleniffer reservoir.

More oil would have been spilled had the pipeline been flowing at the time, said Rood.

Rood said he is “astounded” that there has not been more research into spill cleanups, given that pipelines have been shipping oil for more than 50 years. Better research would help governments and oil companies respond more appropriately to pipeline spills, he said.

There is less chance of a rupture if the pipeline is placed well below the riverbed, out of danger from flooding action, said Rood.

When rolling rocks and flood debris do cause a break, the pipelines release a mix of hydrocarbons that react in various ways to natural processes, he said.

Teams responding immediately after a pipeline rupture have a duty to contain the spill, mop up as much of the oil as possible and scare off birds and animals that attempt to enter the contaminated area, said Rood.

However, the aggressive cleanups that follow an initial response have often caused more harm than good, including the cleanup after the 2012 break, he said.

Pipelines under rivers tend to break during spring flooding, when native trees and shrubs along the flood plain are in full leaf and growing rapidly, said Rood.

“The key plants, the willows and the cottonwoods … are really good at what’s called phytoremediation. In fact, these things are deliberately planted in some contamination sites and part of the reason is that they use a lot of water, so they go through ground water and in so doing they’re able to remove contaminants and the like,” he said.

“Rather than mowing down the willows and cottonwoods that have been contacted with the oil from the rupture … in areas that are thinly coated, I think you’re better off leaving them.”

Rood and his crew documented considerable progress at three designated sites along the banks of the Red Deer River, including evaporation of volatile hydrocarbons and suffocation of the leaves that were coated in crude and eventually fell to the ground.

As time progressed, the tarry substance that covered the trees and rocks on the floodplain dried up and, where there was moisture present, microbes and bacteria completed the breakdown of the remaining material.

The trees that had been in the flood plain grew new leaves and suffered no long-term damage, said Rood. The impact on them was no worse than what they would have suffered from an infestation of tent caterpillars, he said.

On the other hand, where costly and aggressive cleanup has been performed, such as bulldozing river banks and removing contaminated material, there have been devastating consequences including the introduction of invasive plants like as reed canary grass.

At one time, the United States Environmental Protection Agency recommended bulldozing and removal of all contaminants from a spill site, with devastating results, he said.

Funding for the Red Deer River research project included $67,200 from fines totalling $1.3 million levied against the pipeline company, Plains Midstream Canada, after it pleaded guilty to charges laid under Alberta’s Environmental Protection and Enhancement Act in connection with the Sundre break, as well as a similar spill in the Peace River region.

Additional money from the fines went to the Alberta Conservation Association for projects and to the federal government’s Environmental Damage Fund, for projects within the affected watersheds.

bkossowan@bprda.wpengine.com

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

Alberta has 1,910 active cases of COVID-19 as of Wednesday. Red Deer is reporting five active cases, with 108 recovered. (File photo)
Red Deer reports 25th COVID-19 death

415 new cases identified provincially Saturday

More than 120,000 Albertans have signed up to get the COVID-19 vaccine in the first two days of appointment bookings. (Photo courtesy Alberta Health Services Twitter)
Alberta Health Services apologizes after seniors struggle to book vaccine appointments

The CEO and president of Alberta Health Services is apologizing after seniors… Continue reading

Red Deer’s Kyle Moore, 26, will be a houseguest on Season 9 of Big Brother Canada. (Photo courtesy Big Brother Canada)
Red Deer man will be a houseguest on Big Brother Canada

A Red Deer man will be a houseguest on the upcoming season… Continue reading

Red Deer Public Schools says that in the absence of additional funds from the provincial government, there was no consideration of using alternate classroom sites in the district. (AP Photo/Gregory Bull)
Red Deer Public Schools launches online engagement process

Red Deer Public schools is seeking community input to help ensure a… Continue reading

Red Deer Rebels defenceman Mason Ward battles with a Medicine Hat Tigers’ forward during the WHL Central Division season opener. (Photo by Rob Wallator/ Red Deer Rebels)
Tigers come back to spoil Red Deer Rebels home opener

It’s been nearly 345 days since the Red Deer Rebels last played… Continue reading

An arrest by Red Deer RCMP is facing online scrutiny. No charges have been laid and the incident is still under investigation. (Screenshot of YouTube video)
Red Deer RCMP investigating violent arrest caught on video

Police say officer ‘acted within the scope of his duties’

Ottawa Senators goaltender Matt Murray (30) stands in his crease as Calgary Flames left wing Andrew Mangiapane (88), left to right, defenceman Rasmus Andersson (4), Matthew Tkachuk (19), Mikael Backlund (11) and Mark Giordano (5) celebrate a goal during second period NHL action in Ottawa on Saturday, Feb. 27, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick
Calgary Flames beat Ottawa 6-3 to end Senators’ three-game win streak

Flames 6 Senators 3 OTTAWA — The Calgary Flames used a balanced… Continue reading

Toronto Maple Leafs centre Auston Matthews (34) falls on his knees as he skates around Ottawa Senators defenceman Artem Zub (2) during third period NHL hockey action in Toronto on Thursday, February 18, 2021. The Maple Leafs will be without star centre Auston Matthews when they take on the Edmonton Oilers Saturday. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Nathan Denette
Toronto star Auston Matthews won’t play as Leafs face Oilers

EDMONTON — The Maple Leafs will be without star centre Auston Matthews… Continue reading

Crosses are displayed in memory of the elderly who died from COVID-19 at the Camilla Care Community facility during the COVID-19 pandemic in Mississauga, Ont., on November 19, 2020. The number of people who would have died from a COVID-19 infection is likely to be much higher than recorded because of death certificates don't always list the virus as the cause of a fatality, experts say. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Nathan Denette
Death certificates don’t accurately reflect the toll of the pandemic, experts say

The number of people who would have died from a COVID-19 infection… Continue reading

A health-care worker prepares a dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine at a UHN COVID-19 vaccine clinic in Toronto, Thursday, Jan. 7, 2021. A single dose of Pfizer-BioNTech's COVID-19 vaccine is barely enough to cover the average pinky nail but is made up of more than 280 components and requires at least three manufacturing plants to produce. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Nathan Denette
From science to syringe: COVID-19 vaccines are miracles of science and supply chains

OTTAWA — A single dose of Pfizer-BioNTech’s COVID-19 vaccine is barely enough… Continue reading

Wetaskiwin RCMP say a Maskwacis man died after he was struck by a vehicle. (File photo by Advocate staff)
Clare’s Law in Saskatchewan used handful of times; Mounties review their role

REGINA — A first-of-its-kind law in Canada meant to warn those at… Continue reading

The Magpie river in Quebec is shown in a handout photo. THE CANADIAN PRESS/HO-Boreal River MANDATORY CREDIT
Quebec river granted legal rights as part of global ‘personhood’ movement

MONTREAL — With its kilometres of rapids and deep blue waters winding… Continue reading

Thorough sanding of a table top is usually the first step to renewing a finish. Wax contaminants can sometimes still remain on a surface like this after sanding. Cleaning with rubbing alcohol and a rag gets rid of these contaminants without leaving a residue behind. (Photo by Steve Maxwell)
Houseworks: Fixing wood finishes

Q: How can I stop polyurethane from beading up on a mahogany… Continue reading

Most Read