Norman Wells has a waste problem, and Imperial Oil wants to leave more behind
'If they want to leave a legacy, a legacy would be to leave the town the way you found it,' says employee
George Couturier has been dead for more than a decade — but his legacy in Norman Wells, N.W.T., lives on.
He's remembered as an avid crib player, a taxi driver, and someone who could rig up almost anything to be towed down the road. But residents say he also had a penchant for collecting clutter — and his collection has outlasted him in the small Sahtu oil town of about 800 people.
"He tended to accumulate junk including car bodies, truck bodies, old equipment from all over," explained Norman Wells Mayor Frank Pope, as he showed off one of the lots Couturier used to lease from the town.
The land is across the road from the Mackenzie River. One half of it has been cleared, but there is an assortment of scrap on the other half: construction equipment, oil silos and rows upon rows of battered old vehicles — even a Gran Torino that Pope himself remembers driving to the community ages ago.
One metal structure on the property, which Couturier built himself according to one of his friends, is so big there are more vehicles tucked away in the darkness, amid tools and jerry cans scattered on the ground inside.
The Town of Norman Wells, a subarctic community which lies between the Mackenzie River and the Franklin and Richardson Mountains, says it's spent two million dollars over two years cleaning the lot of what it calls legacy waste. But Pope said they need more funding — and a place to haul Couturier's stuff — to finish the job.
And therein lies the problem.
"No scrap dealer in his right mind wants this, I don't think," said Pope. "You have to drain every liquid out of these vehicles before they can even be accepted anywhere and who is going to want them? They're just a bunch of junk."
Even with the liquids drained, bringing what's left to the dump isn't a long-term solution. It's running low on space, and Pope said the town has only recently managed to extend its lifespan from four or five years to 20.
Heaps of hazardous waste
Legacy waste is a problem in communities across the North.
Earlier this year, the N.W.T. government was looking for a contractor to divert waste from dumps in the Sahtu and Beaufort Delta regions. A pair of proposal requests identified 2,411 tonnes of hazardous waste and scrap metal for diversion in the five Sahtu communities and 2,850 tonnes in six Beaufort Delta region communities.
As of July 26, the contracts had not been awarded.
Pope said he's been waiting more than three years for the territorial government to fill the contract for the Sahtu region — which is worth $850,000. And once a contractor is hired, it will still be nothing more than a "drop in the bucket," he said.
"It's not even a Band-Aid. It's just stupid. They need $1 billion, not $1 million, if they want to do it properly."
The contract also won't help with what's been abandoned around town.
Lot 2142 is another piece of Couturier's legacy. The rusted hulls of dozens of vehicles, broken down machines and a chunk of pipeline are strewn about the property — poorly camouflaged in the town's industrial area by the trees and bushes that have grown there.
The territorial government said it's responsible for the lot. So far, no one is cleaning it up.
A Norman Wells resident and Imperial Oil employee, who requested anonymity in this story to protect their job, said there's junk on Lot 2142 that once belonged to Imperial Oil.
The individual, who knew Couturier when he was alive, suggested the transaction may have been informal — that if Couturier could haul it away, then the 142-year-old company may have been willing to give it to him. "I don't think he bought it because he was a poor man," the resident said.
A spokesperson for Imperial Oil said if there are records of transactions between Imperial and Couturier, the company does not have access to them because its archives have been donated to a museum in Calgary that is currently closed. The spokesperson later told CBC News the archives had been transferred to the University of Calgary.
Lot 2142 might also be dangerous. A gate has been set up at its entrance in a meagre attempt to block people from driving into it.
"We think there's some pretty hazardous material in there, but we're not going to go in there and dig around and look at it," said Pope. "You don't want to be messing around with stuff if you don't understand what it is."
Pope said the town has invested in cleaning up Couturier's lot by the river because it wants to "lead by example." Although the Imperial Oil employee pointed a finger at the oil company to clean up the mess on Lot 2142, Pope is pointing his finger at the territorial government — accusing it of not cancelling Couturier's lease in a timely manner, even though he's dead, so it wouldn't have to deal with what's been left behind.
A spokesperson for the territory's lands department did not address Pope's allegations directly, but said in an email Lot 2142 does not have an active lease. The territory is "aware" of contamination there, and is in the process of adding the property to an environmental liabilities list in hopes of securing funding for a clean-up.
The spokesperson said that work was pegged at $250,000 in 2007.
In an emailed statement, Imperial Oil said it is open to talking about if, or how, Lot 2142 fits into its closure and reclamation plans.
More garbage on the horizon
Pope's focus is legacy waste that is already strewn about town, but on a drive through Imperial Oil's central processing facility next to the Mackenzie River he wondered aloud what would become of the company's infrastructure once it shuts down.
An interim closure and reclamation plan and an application to build a waste management facility indicate Imperial Oil wants to leave much of it behind — a plan that is being criticized by Sahtu Secretariat Incorporated (SSI) and one of the company's own employees.
The waste management facility, according to the 2021 application to the Canadian Energy Regulator, would have the capacity to contain as much as 1.4 million tonnes of soil that can't be treated and 27 thousand tonnes of demolition waste for the long-term.
Current designs suggest it would be built on Canol Drive, with either 325,000 cubic metres of storage or 900,000 cubic meters of storage. The impacted soil would be covered with four protective layers, and capped with dirt.
Some of the untreatable soil would come from six artificial islands Imperial built as oil rig platforms in the Mackenzie River back in the '80s. As for the cores of those islands — Imperial Oil wants to let them erode naturally into the river.
But Charles McNeely, SSI's chairperson, said the islands don't erode naturally. He said he's seen firsthand the way they grow over time.
"Slowly it's going to start building up with sand, and we're creating more or less like a dam upstream from us," he said during an interview from his community of Fort Good Hope. "That affects everything downstream, you know. The fish in the lake, game on the river."
SSI referred Imperial Oil's application for a waste management facility to an environmental assessment in May. In its referral letter to the Mackenzie Valley Review Board, first reported by Cabin Radio, McNeely said SSI was concerned about leaving the artificial islands in the river, how the closure and reclamation plan was being broken down into different pieces, and what is being called a colonial idea to leave waste in the North.
McNeely said all the waste and all the soil — including that from the artificial islands — should be removed, and Imperial Oil should return the land to the way it was before the oil field was developed.
During an open house in early 2019, Norman Wells residents asked Imperial Oil why it wasn't shipping waste to the South instead. In a report on its community engagement, the company said it responded by explaining "the impacts and downsides" — and the cost — of transporting anything by barge or over the tundra.
"A made-in-the-North solution is appropriate rather than expecting the South to accept the North's waste," it said, noting that a waste management facility would also create local jobs.
SSI believes that statement to be "egregious" and "bordering on colonialism."
SSI's letter notes the federal government (which owns a third of the oil field) has made millions of dollars from Imperial Oil over the years — and, extrapolating from the publicly available data, that Imperial Oil's revenue would be twice as much.
"They came down and extracted all our oil, took all our money out of our region, and then they kind of say 'well that's your problem now'? You know, I don't think that's right," he said. "We want to make sure everything's being shipped out otherwise we'll have mountains of contaminants in Norman Wells."
What kind of legacy will Imperial Oil leave?
The Imperial Oil employee cited earlier in this story said Imperial Oil's reclamation plan should include the removal of piping that runs under the river to the islands, and the bulk of the artificial islands themselves.
The employee said there's also equipment buried on the mainland and Bear Island, and a dump at the end of the airport's runway, that should be cleaned up — both of which the company said it needs to "investigate further."
"I know that there was likely nothing in place in the '20s when they started operating and pulling oil from the ground, but I know there are regulations now," the employee said.
"I don't want soil here that can never be clean and will always be part of the community," they said.
Pope said Imperial Oil's intentions to leave its waste behind bother him too.
"I think they may be in the same quandary we are," he mused: "Where to ship it to?"
If the company does get approval for its waste management facility, Pope wonders if there is an opportunity for the town to share some of the space.
Imperial Oil said it anticipates producing oil for another five to 10 years. Its current water licence expires in 2025, meaning it'll have to apply for a new one in the midst of finalizing its closure and reclamation plan — which the company says needs more study and consultation. The plan will, in effect, map out the company's legacy to come.
The employee said that legacy should not be one of abandoned artificial islands, forgotten pipelines and deserted utilidors.
"If they want to leave a legacy, a legacy would be to leave the town the way you found it," they said.
- This story has been updated to reflect new information from Imperial Oil. After initial publication, a spokesperson for the company said its archives have been transferred to the University of Calgary.Aug 16, 2022 12:30 PM CT