Water samples mostly normal after oil spill, firm says

The owner of a pipeline that spilled up to 475,000 litres of oil into an internationally popular sport fishing river in central Alberta says water quality samples have almost all been normal, and the impact on wildlife has been minimal.
A map shows the location of the oil spill from a ruptured pipeline near Sundre, Alta. (CBC)

The owner of a pipeline that spilled up to 475,000 litres of oil into an internationally popular sport fishing river in central Alberta says water quality samples have almost all been normal, the impact on wildlife has been minimal and it intends to compensate those who have been affected.

Plains Midstream Canada vice-president Stephen Bart says monitoring is being done twice a day at 18 locations along the Red Deer River and the Gleniffer Lake man-made reservoir and recreation area.

"With the exception of one reading on the first day, all of those readings have been well within Alberta guidelines for drinking water," Bart said Tuesday at the Dickson Dam, which creates the reservoir.

Plains Midstream has also been monitoring air quality in the area at three locations, and so far levels have been within safe limits.

The company continues to contain the spill with booms, plugs and absorbent pads.

It is also building a vacuum station on the east side of the river to suck up any residual oil from the pipeline to avoid any more leakage. Bart said it may take three or four days to build that facility, and then another day or two to remove the residual oil.

Wildlife deterrants placed

So far one goose has been confirmed to have been affected by the spill, said Bart.

"It was taken to a wildlife treatment centre where it was cleaned and released, but we have 12 wildlife experts on site, three biologists."

Oil from a pipeline leak coats a pond near Sundre, Alta., on June 8. (Jeff McIntosh/Canadian Press)

Wildlife deterrents have been placed to try to keep animals away from the water.

"We do everything that we physically can to deter wildlife from getting contaminated. When they do, we have trained specialists that we're able to deal with that safely, effectively," he said.

The company says it has met with almost 1,700 people who have land or live along the river to keep them up-to-date. When asked whether Plains would offer compensation to those affected, Bart said "absolutely", but didn't provide any details.

"To the extent that we have impacted the residents, we are going to make it right," he said.

"Exactly what those impacts are, how we're going to address that, that's something we need to deal with one on one with those particular individuals."

It's believed a section of the 46-year-old pipeline that runs under the river near Sundre, Alta., was breached on Thursday night, but Bart said the company doesn't know that for sure.

High water, wind pose challenges

A lot of the oil was caught up in debris that has been washed into "little pockets and eddies" along the river, said Martin Bundred, consequence manager with Alberta Environment and Sustainable Resource Development.

Cleanup crews are focusing on 25 specific locations.

High water levels and rainy, windy weather have been a challenge, said Bundred. Those factors will determine how quickly the spill can be cleaned up.

"What we think is that the vast majority will be reached fairly quickly, and there will be smaller percentages that they're going to need to get to," said Bundred.

He said it's hard to pin down what the long term impacts may be, but past experience indicates they'll likely be minimal.

"It's a river system. It's flushing constantly, so we don't think that there's any big issue," he said.

Renown environmentalist David Suzuki told reporters in Edmonton that Albertans ought to consider the long-term impact of the vast network of pipes that criss-cross the province.

"The idea that we're going to be able to manage or mitigate this damage is really open to question. We've got to ask ourselves can we keep putting the environment up to sacrifice for the name of the economy," he said.

"The idea we make these systems so good that they're foolproof is crazy. It's going to break down, there are going to be leaks."

Investigation underway

The Energy Resources Conservation Board is investigating the leak, said spokeswoman Cara Tobin.

She said the ERCB can't issue fines, but it can ban the company from operating in the province or force facilities to be shut down.

Plains Midstream's history will be one consideration in the investigation, she added. Another Plains Midstream pipeline in northwestern Alberta spilled more than 4.5 million litres of oil. Just last week the company issued a release, showing clean up efforts near the spill are almost complete.

Fishing guides and residents have already said they fear Thursday's leak could do long-term damage.

"I just hope they're not going to come in for three weeks or a month and say, 'Oh yeah, we're good. We've got it cleaned up, and off we go.' That's just not going to be good enough," guide Garry Pierce of Tailwater Drifters said Monday.

Kelsey Kure, who lives on about two kilometres of waterfront along the affected part of the river, said a study needs to be done to determine the future effects of the spill.

"You can't just go on pretending that nothing happened, that there are no impacts," he said.

The company has said high river levels flushed most of the oil downstream into Gleniffer Lake, making it easier to contain the mess. About 180 personnel are working to clean shorelines and remove contaminated debris.

But that doesn't mean there won't be consequences, said Kure, a water resource technician for a forestry company. He said oil is pooling up along the river's margins.

Both Kure and Pierce fear damage to the popular fishing spot. They say the spill will kill off many insects in the water that are just now emerging from their eggs. It could also contaminate river bottom gravel, a spawning habitat for trout.