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Zama City Pipeline Spill Raises Questions about Disclosure

June 13, 2013

The recent pipeline spill of over 9.5 million litres of industrial waste water north of Zama City raises disturbing questions regarding the Alberta ERCB timeliness when informing the public about this kind of incident. Despite the fact that the spill was first reported to the Government of Alberta by Apache Canada Ltd. on June 1, it was another ten days before this knowledge became public. Even then it was only after the spill was reported to a television station that any government announcement was forthcoming.

Responding to questions about that delay, ERCB claims that they did not initially know the volume of the spill. According to ERCB spokesperson Bob Curran, “If we had known that up-front we would have made the announcement at that time.”

Yet Curran is also on the record as saying that, “Volume isn’t always indicative of the severity of a spill… You can have small volumes that get into a waterway that are much more problematic than larger volumes that are mostly contained on a lease site.”

AWA agrees with this latter statement: it is why we strongly believe that it is in the public interest to have immediate and full disclosure of such spills as soon as they occur. We promptly hear on a voluntary basis from NuVista in the Hay-Zama Wildland Park when even one litre of material is spilled inside a contained berm. That is, we have full transparency and timely disclosure. We believe it is incumbent on the Government of Alberta to do the same for all spills.

In this case, the severity was high, as was the volume. While the level of hydrocarbons in the spilled “produced water” was low, there were still high levels of salt and other elements in the water that are extremely damaging to the ecosystem, especially in the marshy wetlands that are found in that part of the province. This is not a small problem. Salt water spills are just as damaging or perhaps more so than oil. They kill the vegetation and are difficult to remediate.

That this happened in an area used by first nations to run traplines is yet another indicator of why timely disclosure is so important.

One can possibly look to a jurisdictional split between Alberta Environmental Protection (AENV) and the ERCB as part of the real reason that disclosure took so long. In his master’s thesis titled Saltwater Spill Site Assessment and Remediation in Northern Alberta, D’Arcy White identifies a memorandum of understanding between the two agencies as “interpreted by upstream producers to mean that any spill report filed with the ERCB meets the reporting requirements of AENV.” Yet at the same time, “less attention may be given to saltwater spills than to a more tangible crude oil spill, especially in remote areas. Unless a spill report is made directly to AENV indicating a surface water body is affected, or human health or property is at risk, follow-up and compliance confirmation is neither timely nor consistent between AENV Districts.”

White goes on to propose optimism regarding the planned single energy regulator, suggesting that it may help resolve this schism. AWA is inclined to agree with this assessment. We are also hopeful that the new agency will result in more timely and appropriate releases.

This will likely become more and more important as time goes on. AWA has raised concerns in the past regarding Alberta’s aging pipeline infrastructure and the increasing number of annual spills that we may expect to see resulting. This time, it was a salt water spill in a remote area. The next time – or times – it may not be.

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