'Worse than oil': Sask. farmers say Husky downplaying damage from salt water leak

The Saskatchewan farming family that owns the land where salt water leaked from a Husky Energy line says the company is “underplaying” the damage.

Wourms family says salt water does more damage to farmland than oil

The Wourms family, which owns the land where a Husky Energy leak spilled salt water into the Englishman River, says the company has downplayed the damage caused by the spill and did not publicly announce damage to their land. (Nick Wourms)

The Saskatchewan farming family that owns the land where salt water leaked from a Husky Energy line says the company is "underplaying" the damage.

Ken and Nick Wourms have released aerial photos that show yellowed trees and vegetation in what appears to be the path of the leak, which spilled salt water last Wednesday into the Englishman River, about 500 metres from the leak site near Turtleford, Sask.

Husky spokesperson Mel Duvall said in a response to emailed questions that the company does not know how much water leaked, adding that testing has not detected any hydrocarbon or salinity contamination in the Englishman River. He said Husky did not mention any damage to farmland in its initial statement on the leak because "some impact to vegetation was to be expected."

"In the early stages we were working to get an assessment of impacted areas," said Duvall.

But Ken said the impact to his land is significant.

"We have 90-foot [30-metre], 50-year-old trees that are dead … we've got a whole grove of them gone," he said.

Nick Wourms, who is in the process of taking over the family farm from his parents, standing on the edge of a patch of dead trees and vegetation killed by a Husky Energy salt water leak. (Alicia Bridges/CBC)

"That's some of the most pristine, native, untouched, undisturbed prairie wood and natural landscape in northwestern Saskatchewan."

He's also concerned about potential contamination of the land by uncleaned equipment Husky has brought onto the farm property. 

"They're driving over it wherever they want, I've got no releases for them to [excavate] anything and at the end of the day they're underplaying what's going on out there."

Husky says concerns 'understandable'

Duvall said the company is aware that Wourms is concerned about the impact to his land and said "that is completely understandable."

"We've had a good relationship and we will continue to work closely with him on the remediation work," said Duvall in an email.

The company said it had started removing top soil that was contaminated by the salt water but it has halted all excavation at the request of the family, who also urged Husky not to remove any dead trees. 

Photographs show yellowed trees and vegetation in what appears to be the path of the spill moving downhill toward the river. (Nick Wourms)

Husky said the water is being tested to determine a full chemical breakdown, but the results are not yet available. It said salt water was responsible for the death of the vegetation.

Ken plans to hire an independent soil specialist to analyze how deep the salt has penetrated.

His son Nick, who is in the process of taking over the farm, took aerial photos of the site with a drone he uses for crop monitoring.

He said part of the affected area is canola crop, while the area closest to the river is natural prairie grassland that his family has left untouched.

"It's a big concern, especially with me trying to take over the family farm," said Nick.

"My parents [are passing] it to the next generation which is me. My whole lifetime I'm going to have to deal with this stuff."

Family fears salt water goes deep

Both Nick and Ken fear the salt water has penetrated the ground deeply and will have a lasting impact on soil quality.

For them, they said salt water is worse than oil.

Two years ago, a Husky pipeline near Maidstone, Sask. leaked about 225,000 litres of oil, about 40 per cent of which leaked into the North Saskatchewan River.
Aerial photographs taken by Nick Wourms using a drone show a patch of yellowed trees and vegetation. (Nick Wourms)

"Oil is one thing, and I mean, it's a problem, but it stays on the surface," said Nick.

"Whereas salt water leaches into the ground and it goes really deep."

Duvall said in an email Husky does not know how deep into the soil the water has leaked, adding that soil from affected areas will be removed and replaced.

"Testing is underway on the soil," said Duvall.

"Our initial focus was on testing the river water and putting measures in place to prevent further drainage into the river." 

The Wourms family said Husky should have notified them of their plan before removing soil and bringing equipment onto their property.

Wourms family wants answers about excavation equipment

They said the company was unable to answer their questions about how the equipment was cleaned to ensure there was no possibility of contamination. Husky said it has asked the companies that own the equipment to provide that information. 

"We grow a lot of canola on our farm and if even a little speck of the spore of clubroot is in the soil — our farmland that's worth $12 million now could be worth two in a matter of a couple of years," said Nick.

"We try to take care with cleaning our equipment, steaming our equipment, bleaching it and they ran in with all this excavation equipment without asking us and it was covered in mud, it wasn't cleaned properly."

The leaking line was used to transport saline water brought to surface during the production of oil. It runs between a water handling facility and a disposal well west of Turtleford.

The treated water was on its way to being disposed of before the leak, which happened about 500 metres west of the Englishman River. The line has since been shut down but the precise location of the breach is still not known.
The company says it does not yet know how much salt water leaked out of the line, or when the leak started. (Nick Wourms)

Although the leak was discovered Wednesday, Husky said it does not know when it started.

Nick and Ken believe it could have started about three weeks ago, having noticed their spraying machine sank into the field.

"I just assumed it was wet in the area because of all the rains we'd been having," he said.

The leak occurred in the Rural Municipality of Frenchman Butte near Turtleford, which has a population just under 500 people, and is located 207 kilometres northwest of Saskatoon.

Husky Energy said there are no reports of wildlife being affected.