‘Every Plant and Tree Died:’ Huge Alberta Pipeline Spill Raises Safety Questions as Keystone Decision Looms
June 20, 2013, 3:00am

By Kiley Kroh

As the Obama administration’s decision regarding whether to approve the controversial Keystone XL pipeline draws nearer, the latest disaster is raising serious concerns about the safety of Canada’s rapidly expanding pipeline network.

A massive toxic waste spill from an oil and gas operation in northern Alberta is being called one of the largest recent environmental disasters in North America. First reported on June 1, the Texas-based Apache Corp. didn’t reveal the size of the spill until June 12, which is said to cover more than 1,000 acres.

Members of the Dene Tha First Nation tribe are outraged that it took several days before they were informed that 9.5 million liters of salt and heavy-metal-laced wastewater had leaked onto wetlands they use for hunting and trapping.

“Every plant and tree died” in the area touched by the spill, said James Ahnassay, chief of the Dene Tha.

As the Globe and Mail reports, the Apache disaster is not an anomaly:

The leak follows a pair of other major spills in the region, including 800,000 litres of an oil-water mixture from Pace Oil and Gas Ltd., and nearly 3.5 million litres of oil from a pipeline run by Plains Midstream Canada.

After those accidents, the Dene Tha had asked the Energy Resources Conservation Board, Alberta’s energy regulator, to require installation of pressure and volume monitors, as well as emergency shutoff devices, on aging oil and gas infrastructure. The Apache spill has renewed calls for change.

Following initial speculation that the leak stemmed from aging infrastructure, officials from Apache Corp. revealed that the pipeline was only five years old and had been designed to last for 30.

The incident comes on the heels of accusations from the provincial New Democratic Party that Alberta Energy Minister Ken Hughes is withholding the results of an internal pipeline safety report pending the U.S. government’s decision regarding Keystone XL. The report was commissioned last summer by Alberta Energy following a series of toxic spills — including the Plains Midstream Canada spill that leached 475,000 liters of oil into the Red Deer River, a major source of drinking water for central Alberta.

According to Winnipeg Free Press, “an engineering firm completed the technical report last fall and presented the findings to the government, which sent the findings to the Energy Resources Conservation Board for a review that was to be completed by March 31.”

Hughes denied delaying the report but declined to give a release date, saying only that it would come “fairly soon.”

A recent Global News investigation found that over the past 37 years, Alberta’s extensive network of pipelines has experienced 28,666 crude oil spills in total, plus another 31,453 spills of a variety of other liquids used in oil and gas production — from salt water to liquid petroleum. That averages out to two crude oil spills a day, every day.

As concerns mount over Apache’s delay in detecting and reporting its extensive toxic waste spill, Bloomberg reported on Tuesday that TransCanada is not planning to use the external leak detection tools recommended by the Environmental Protection Agency for its proposed Keystone XL pipeline. As a result, the State Department concludes “Keystone XL would have to be spilling more than 12,000 barrels a day — or 1.5 percent of its 830,000 barrel capacity — before its currently planned internal spill-detection systems would trigger an alarm.”