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Nexen Energy pipeline spill prompts environmental protection order

Alberta oil pipeline cleanup covers area of 2 CFL football fields

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Alberta's energy regulator has issued an environmental protection order after a massive pipeline spill in the northern part of the province earlier this week. 

The order directs Nexen Energy to contain the spill, which saw five million litres of bitumen, sand and water released at the company's Long Lake oilsands facility near Fort McMurray. 

It also instructs Nexen to alert affected parties and develop a cleanup plan. 

In a public apology issued Friday, the Calgary-based company said that the spill had already been contained and was in the process of being cleaned up. 

The energy regulator is now investigating the spill, which was discovered by a contractor Wednesday. It is not known how long the leak had been ongoing before it was found. Nexen said the warning system for a pipeline installed last year failed to detect a break. 

"We are deeply concerned with this," said Ron Bailey, Nexen's senior vice-president of Canadian operations. "We sincerely apologize for the impact this had caused."

RAW: Alberta pipeline spill aerials 1:44

The material leaked through what Bailey says was a "visible burst" in the pipeline, a double-walled, high-pressure line installed in 2014. Bailey said the line was shut down immediately after the leak was discovered. 

The detection system did not work in this case, so it isn't known how long the substance was leaking. A contractor walking along the pipeline discovered the spill.

Ron Bailey

Ron Bailey, senior vice president of Canadian operations for Nexen, apologized for the spill. (CBC)

"This is a modern pipeline," Bailey said. "We have pipeline integrity equipment, some very good equipment," he said. "Our investigation is looking through exactly why that wasn't alerting us earlier."

The spill covers an area of about 16,000 square metres, the size of approximately two CFL football fields. Bailey said it is mostly contained within the pipeline's immediate area.

The area can only be reached by a winter access road, so the company had to build a road into the site. Bailey said vacuuming of the oil started Friday. The site is contained by berms and other abatement equipment. 

Bailey declined to name the company that manufactured the pipeline. 

Despite the scope of the incident, Alberta Premier Rachel Notley said pipelines are still the best way to transport oil and gas.

"For instance, in Quebec, they know full well that rail is much more problematic a transportation method," Notley told CBC's Edmonton AM on Friday.

"Even within this unfortunate accident, which I'm troubled by."

Nexen Alberta pipeline break

This photo shows the location of the spill relative to the oilsands facility. (Terry Reith/CBC)

Notley is attending the Council of the Federation meeting in St. John's, where premiers agreed to a national energy strategy.

She said her government is getting regular updates about the spill.

"We'll be doing an investigation into what went wrong and what happened with respect to how long the leak was in place and whether everything was done to catch it as soon as it could be, as well as to prevent it at the outset," she said.

"Unfortunately, there's nothing we can say except that we are going to learn from this."

'Extremely serious' impact

First Nations groups in northern Alberta are calling for tighter environmental regulations on pipelines, saying they are concerned that more spills will happen in the future. 

A spokesman for the ACFN said a spill this big will have an "extremely serious" impact on the muskeg, which is a source of aboriginal medicines, berries and wild game.

"There is no way to clean or reclaim the muskeg," said Eriel Deranger in a news release Friday. "Destruction and contamination like this that directly affects a key component of our ecosystems is affecting First Nations' ability to access lands and territories for hunting, fishing, gathering and trapping rights, rights protected by both the Constitution and our treaties."

Adam said the spill is "dangerously close" to the Clearwater River, which flows directly into the Athabasca River. 

"The repercussions from the incident could potentially be felt far and wide by those that rely on the Athabasca basin," he said. 

He said both pipeline companies and government need to commit to better environmental stands, and also called for a better consultation process for projects that could impact aboriginal groups.

"I think it's time for the government and industry to come to terms with the fact that the rights and title of First Nation people are interdependent with flourishing, clean and healthy eco-systems," he said.

Robert Cree, an elder with the Fort McMurray First Nation, said he was "shocked, but not surprised" by the news of the pipeline break. 

Cree, who has hunted in the area now affected by the spill, worries that even after the cleanup is completed, the chemicals will have a lasting effect on the animals living nearby.

"How are they going to sustain the wildlife, how are they going to prevent the wildlife from getting into the area?" he said. 

Saturday, the Wood Buffalo Environmental Association said it has seen no impact on air quality in the wake of the spill. 

In April 2011, a Plains Midstream Canada ULC pipeline leaked 4.5 million litres of crude oil near a First Nations community in northwest Alberta.

That leak was the largest in the province in 35 years. It contaminated more than three hectares of beaver ponds and muskeg in a densely forested area.

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