A toxic waste spill, the largest of its kind in North America, has destroyed a chunk of landscape in northern Alberta.
“The substance is the inky black colour of oil, and the treetops are brown,” reported The Globe and Mail in a recent story. “Across a broad expanse of northern Alberta muskeg, the landscape is dead. It has been poisoned by a huge spill of 9.5 million litres of toxic waste from an oil and gas operation in northern Alberta, the third major leak in a region whose residents are now questioning whether enough is being done to maintain aging energy infrastructure.”
This is not bitumen, as is leaking on the Cold Lake Air Weapons Range elsewhere in northern Alberta.
This leak is known as “produced water,” and it is water, laden with contaminants, that is piped off industrial developments in the Alberta Oil sands. Apache spokesman Paul Wyke told The Globe and Mail that the spill consists of “salty water,” with “trace amounts” of oil.
“It didn’t affect people in general. There wasn’t anybody harmed. There wasn’t anybody that was directly affected,” Apache’s outgoing Canadian operations president, Tim Wall, told The Globe and Mail.
“Every plant and tree died,” Dene Tha’ First Nation Chief James Ahnassay told The Globe and Mail. The Dene Tha’s traplines run through the area. In a statement the Dene Tha’ said the spill runs right along a trapline and harvesting area and is about half a mile from the nation’s reserve, and barely a mile from the Zama River, where its members fish.
The pipeline, owned by Houston-based Apache Corp., is near Zama City, a northern Alberta town near the province’s border with the Northwest Territories. The spill covers 42 hectares, or 103 acres. Just as with the Cold Lake spill of bitumen, this wastewater leak may have begun back in the winter.
A few days after The Globe and Mail story it came out that the infrastructure in question was not even aging—the pipeline that had leaked was only five years old.
The spill was initially seen on June 1, The Globe and Mail reported, but it took 11 days for the Alberta Energy Resources Conservation Board to notify the public, Huffington Post reported. The Dene Tha have analyzed the substance and told the newspaper that it contains “hydrocarbons, high levels of salt, sulphurous compounds, metals and naturally occurring radioactive materials, along with chemical solvents and additives used by the oil industry,” The Globe and Mail said.
“We’ve tried to work as much as we could to keep it in good shape,” said Wall to The Globe and Mail.
Such words underscore the lack of faith that Native peoples as well as environmentalists have in corporate promises. Objections to the various pipeline projects—most notably Northern Gateway in British Columbia and Keystone XL through the U.S.—that would transport viscous crude from the Alberta oil sands to various points along the coast for foreign markets center around the notion that spills are inevitable.
“Dene Tha’ raised concerns with the ERCB about old oil and gas infrastructure in its Territory and stressed the need for emergency shut-off devices on all facilities, as well as pressure and volume monitors,” the Dene Tha’ said in a statement. “Had these precautions been in place, the Apache spill may not have occurred or contaminated such a large area.”