Alberta’s government has dropped the ball, say people concerned about the impact an oil spill on the Red Deer River will have on wildlife, fisheries and water quality downstream.
Fears bubbled up on Friday when people learned that a pipeline under the Red Deer River, about 30 kilometres upstream from the Gleniffer Lake reservoir, had leaked up to 3,000 barrels of oil into the water and that the oil slick had made its way to the lake.
The pipeline, which was not flowing at the time of the breach, belongs to Calgary-based Plains Midwestern Canada.
The company announced last week that it is still finalizing cleanup of a much larger oil spill that occurred when one of its pipelines ruptured in Northern Alberta in April of last year.
Internationally recognized conservationist and outdoors author Bob Scammell, a columnist for the Red Deer Advocate, said on Sunday that Premier Alison Redford has been apologizing on the industry’s behalf when she and her government should be cracking down on companies that cause damage to the environment.
“This stuff has got to stop. We’re getting too many of these. All we’re doing is, more and more production and sell it to Asia if we can’t sell it to the United States and exploit everything and it fundamentally is destroying a lot of people, a lot of things that people love about this province.
“I expect it’s ruined the summer for a lot of people at those resorts on Gleniffer Lake.”
Redford said on Saturday that the spills are not the norm.
“It’s actually an exception, if you think that we have hundreds of thousands of kilometres of pipelines across this province. There has been a leak and it has been contained,” Redford said. “We have pipelines that criss-cross this province that are intact and work.”
Friday’s spill has people raising questions about how old those pipelines are, what shape they’re in and who’s making sure that they are regularly and carefully inspected.
Martin Burndred, consequence manager for Alberta Environment and Sustainable Resource Development, said from the site at Gleniffer Lake on Sunday that there are about 20 pipelines crossing beneath the Red Deer River between the Dickson Dam and the foothills.
Keeping them intact is tricky business, because there is sour gas in most of the wells that feed them and sour gas is corrosive, said Olds resident Murray Jutras, who went out on Sunday to assess the damage.
“The Red Deer is a dynamite river,” he said, explaining that it shifts constantly and unpredictably, producing huge chunks of ice that churn at its base as they tumble downstream during the spring thaw.
Half joking, he said people in the area don’t have to worry about an earthquake because there is so much pipe underground, it would hold everything together.
At the same time, he worries that the pipelines aren’t being regulated and monitored as well as they should.
Scammell said he put himself through seven years of university by working the pipelines. Things were different in the early days, when pipelines were still a relatively new tool for shipping oil and gas.
“We really, really spent a lot of time flying the lines with helicopters and I just about killed myself walking the lines looking for leaks. I just don’t think they’re doing that any more. I can’t understand how these leaks take place and go on for so long,” said Scammell.
“I just don’t think anybody is doing their jobs any more, and that includes the government, with regard to requiring accountability and protecting the environment against these leaks. I don’t think they’re doing enough to require the repair and maintenance and upgrading of these lines. I understand this is a 40-year-old line.”
It’s a sure thing in this case that large numbers of the insects living in and on the water will have been killed off, and that will deprive any surviving fish of their main source of food, said Scammell.
Phil French, president of the Red Deer River Naturalists, said on Sunday morning that he had taken a drive out to Jackson Creek and the Garrington Bridge on Sunday.
French said he found ponds full of oil alongside the Red Deer River near the spill site.
“I actually met a couple there . . . and they’re basically out of their home because of the leak, just because there’s oil everywhere.”
French said his group has offered to help the couple out in any way it can.
A few experts from the group are going out later this week to have a look at their land, which French said appears to be a special and natural area.
The Red Deer River Naturalists also act as stewards for the nearby Butcher Creek Natural Area, which they want to inspect during their tour.
Peter Hodson, a biology professor at Queen’s University and an expert on the effects of oil spills on fish and wildlife, said it’s promising that few struggling or injured animals have been found so far. He said it’s also good news for fish if the oil managed to get to the lake quickly before being churned up in the river.
But the fact the water level in the river was high means grass and other land that’s further up on the riverbank is more likely to be coated with oil, he said.
“That means some animals, particularly the ducks that are nesting on the banks, and some of the animals like muskrat and beaver that use the banks quite a bit, may be that much more exposed to oil.”
The cleanup along the river has to be done carefully so as not to disrupt nests and other animal habitat, saud Hodson.
“You often need big machines and that means you have fairly heavy equipment running over the riverbank. It’s one of those things where the cure can be worse than the disease, so it has to be done with a great deal of care.”
Redford has promised a full investigation and said if there are safety shortfalls the government will make changes.
with files from The Canadian Press