Husky oil spill: 3 cities can go back to river water

Three Saskatchewan cities that had their water supplies disrupted by the Husky oil spill have been given the green light to draw water once again from the North Saskatchewan River and Codette reservoir.

Melfort, North Battleford, Prince Albert OK'd to draw water from North Sask. River, reservoir

An oil spill into the North Saskatchewan River forced a number of communities to switch to alternative water supplies. (Matthew Garand/CBC)

Three Saskatchewan cities that had their water supplies disrupted by the Husky oil spill have been given the green light to draw water once again from the North Saskatchewan River and Codette reservoir.

The Water Security Agency told officials in North Battleford, Prince Albert and Melfort that they are now allowed to divert and treat water from the river. 

The water intakes for the communities were shut down in July after a Husky Energy pipeline near Maidstone leaked up to 250,000 litres of oil into the river. 

The agency asked for a water safety assessment from the Technical Working Group — a group made up of engineers, toxicologists, biologists and other experts from the province's Ministry of Environment, Husky Energy, and environmental consulting companies. The group looked at any human health threats from the oil, where the oil will end up, and long-term monitoring requirements.

Then, the assessment was reviewed by an internal government science committee made up of researchers from the University of Saskatchewan and University of Alberta, and officials from Environment and Climate Change Canada and Health Canada.

According to the report, all water tests have been coming back clean.

"These are some of the basic questions we needed answered," said WSA spokesperson Sam Ferris. "And we needed assurances to come to a decision, and support a decision, regarding the safety of the water for use for municipal water treatment systems."

The water security agency said the oil components detected in the river do not present unacceptable risks to the residents as long as proper water treatment is done.

Prince Albert had to use an alternative water supply after the July 21 oil leak contaminated the North Saskatchewan River. (Don Somers/CBC)

Now, municipalities are getting ready to switch their water treatment systems back to the river.

While Prince Albert is expected to have its system back to normal as early as Monday, river sediment has blocked the water intake in North Battleford. It will likely take until next month to fix.

Prince Albert has already started dismantling its system of temporary water lines that have been supplying the city with fresh water for almost two months.

Both North Battleford and Prince Albert have set up pre-treatment systems to make sure the water is completely clear of any petroleum products. 

River-bottom oil

The province estimates that around 88 per cent of the oil has been cleaned up.

However, the WSA says it's difficult to say how much crude oil remains on the river floor. High water flows on the North Saskatchewan River last month has moved sediment around, making it difficult to track, and very difficult to clean up.

While water treatment plants are very efficient at filtering out contaminated sediments, it's still not known what long-term effects the spill will have on wildlife that depend on the river.

"At this point in time, we're not really certain," said Ferris. "Fish biologists tell me that fish will avoid oil contamination, and that they have some ability to remove oil from their metabolic processes. The WSA has some field biologists that are actually looking at the creatures that live on or near the sediments, and doing some monitoring of that."

The WSA has studied the health of the North Saskatchewan River bed in the past, and will have data to compare pre-and-post oil spill.

"The number and diversity of species and the number of organisms in the river bottom, in the river sediments, is an indicator of the health of the river system," he said.

Ferris said the agency will study how much oil is picked up by the micro-organisms.

The oil that is left on the bottom of the riverbank is expected to travel downstream at a rate of 20 to 50 kilometres a year.