Calgary·Alberta Spills

Plains Midstream fined $1.3M after guilty plea

A pipeline company has been fined after pleading guilty in two spills that sent a total of nearly five million litres of oil into Alberta rivers and wetlands.

Critics say fine is too low for spills that leaked close to 5 million litres of oil

A boom stretched out to contain a pipeline leak on the Gleniffer reservoir in June of 2012. (Jeff McIntosh/Canadian Press)

A pipeline company has been fined after pleading guilty in two spills that sent a total of nearly five million litres of oil into Alberta rivers and wetlands.

Plains Midstream Canada faced three environmental charges in a courtroom in Red Deer, Alta., on Tuesday and was ordered to pay a total of $1.3 million for the spills, one of which was the second largest in Alberta history.

"We made a commitment to address the impacts resulting from the Rainbow and Rangeland incidents, and this settlement is reflective of that commitment," said the company in a statement. 

"We sincerely regret that the incidents happened. We are committed to operating our pipelines safely. We continue to improve our pipeline safety through industry-leading investments in people, technology and programs."

Greenpeace spokesman Mike Hudema said the figure represents about five hours worth of profit for Plains All American, the company that owns Plains Midstream, which has about 1,250 employees in Canada.

"A $1.3-million fine for Plains Midstream is hardly a signal to the company or Alberta's problem-plagued pipeline industry that they need to start solving their ongoing spill issues," he said.

Little Buffalo leak

According to an agreed statement of facts, a poorly welded and highly stressed section of the 48-year-old Rainbow pipeline cracked on April 28, 2011. About 4.5 million litres of oil leaked into low-lying marshlands near the northern Alberta community of Little Buffalo.

Only the lucky location of a beaver dam prevented the oil from flowing beyond the low-lying spot where the leak occurred. The beaver did not survive.

"A beaver dam was present that stopped the vast majority (and probably all) of the oil from escaping," said the statement.

The statement describes the damage as significant, although small in area. A chemist with the Alberta Energy Regulator reported that the cleanup had been successful, and that frogs and insects had returned to the site by the following year.

Although school in Little Buffalo was cancelled for several days over odour concerns, "no information exists to show if anyone in the area was at risk of any harm or suffered any health effects," the statement says.

"The Rainbow release appears to have resulted in relatively little effect to humans due to the remoteness of the release

The pipeline was shut down for 122 days before it was allowed to reopen.

The board then responsible for overseeing Alberta pipelines cited the company for not properly digging the pipeline, for inadequate operating and maintenance and for inadequate leak detection and response.

Plains Midstream was ordered to assess all of its other pipelines of the same type.

Red Deer River spill

The company also pleaded guilty to a June 2012 spill into the Red Deer River near the community of Sundre in central Alberta. Under the pressure of water flows more than 10 times normal, a length of the 48-year-old Rangeland pipeline running underneath the river failed.

Several Sundre residents went to hospital with respiratory complaints. People with homes along that stretch of river had to leave. Five members of one family were taken to hospital and others were not able to return to their homes for weeks.

Gleniffer Lake, a downstream reservoir popular with anglers and boaters, was closed for three weeks at the height of summer. Drinking water in the area was also affected.

Report critical of company's action

A report by Alberta's energy watchdog released earlier this year was critical of the company's actions.

The regulator concluded Plains Midstream didn't inspect its pipeline often enough and didn't pay enough attention to government warnings. It also said the company failed to enact adequate mitigation measures once the leak occurred and communicated poorly with hundreds of people affected by the spill.

Although dead fish and wildlife were found in the area, the agreed statement of facts says "no cause of the death of such wildlife was conclusively determined."

Alberta Environment reports in the statement that the company's cleanup of the Rangeland leak was "exemplary."

The section of pipe that failed has since been abandoned.

With files from CBC