Enbridge pipeline spill adds to worry of First Nations group

By Gemma Karstens-Smith, edmontonjournal.com June 20, 2012

EDMONTON – A faulty gasket is to blame for the 230,000 litres of oil discovered Monday spilling from Enbridge’s Athabasca pipeline, says a spokesman for the Energy Resources Conservation Board.

About 1,445 barrels of heavy crude oil leaked out of the pump station where the gasket was located. The 541-kilometre pipeline stretches from the Fort McMurray oilsands to Hardisty and has a capacity of 345,000 barrels per day.

Enbridge spokesman Graham White said it is not possible to offer an estimate of the area affected by the spill because “some areas are more affected than others.”

“The area affected is our pump station site, some area along the pipeline right-of-way that is also (owned by) Enbridge and part of a local field,” White said in an email Wednesday. “The vast majority of the spill is on the site and there is no impact to waterways or wildlife.”

About 180 barrels of oil spread on to a neighbouring landowner’s property, said Darin Barter, spokesman for Energy Resources Conservation Board.

White said the company is keeping the site closed to reporters because of “safety and operational issues.”

He could not say how long it will take to clean up the spill site, about 24 kilometres southeast of Elk Point.

Clean-up and investigation crews have been on-site since Monday.

Barter said leaks in pump stations are “fairly rare,” and investigators will look into “less obvious” reasons behind the release, such as operating pressure.

The pipeline was shut down early Monday and the pumping station fenced in.

The pump station has been decommissioned and the pipeline has been reopened, Barter said.

Enbridge’s Athabasca pipeline spill is the third major pipeline break in Alberta in two months — breaks in a Plains Midstream line near Sundre and a Pace Oil and Gas Ltd. well in northern Alberta are also being cleaned up.

Having the incidents so close together is unusual and “not indicative of Alberta’s level of safety,” Barter said.

“Given the enormous amount of oil and gas infrastructure in this province, it’s a very safe system.”

He said the recent spills are “very different incidents.”

Mike Deising, press secretary for Alberta Energy Minister Ken Hughes, said the province has a “good” pipeline system.

“The problem is we have 400,000 kilometres of pipeline and occasionally, we will have a spill,” Deising said.

Premier Alison Redford said pipeline spills “happen sometimes” and are part of balancing social and economic factors.

“I think people have a pretty good appreciation of the fact that there does need to be a balance and it is unfortunate when these things happen,” Redford said.

The province is backing the construction of the controversial Enbridge Northern Gateway pipeline, intended to transport Alberta bitumen from Hardisty to Kitimat, B.C. If built, the pipeline would allow Alberta to sell its oil to booming Asian markets.

The project has faced fierce opposition and Art Sterritt, executive director of Coastal First Nations, said the latest spill underlines their concerns.

“We don’t like to say we told you so, but we did,” Sterritt said.

“Folks out here are not taking any great pleasure in the fact that there’s oil spills all over Alberta. However, the industry itself is demonstrating to British Columbians that they don’t have their act together and B.C.ers are not going to allow the same thing to happen here.”

Enbridge maintains such spills are rare, however. To critics who draw a link between the nearby spill and potential breaks in a future Northern Gateway pipeline, White noted this particular spill was quickly found, likely not related to pipeline integrity, and “appropriate, immediate and effective actions (were taken) to contain the product and mobilize response crews for cleanup, inspection and assessment.”

— With files from Trish Audette

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