A representative for the company whose pipeline spilled hundreds of thousands of litres of oil into an Alberta river suggests there were two strokes of luck that kept the problem from being worse.
Stephen Bart, the vice-president of crude oil operations for Plains Midstream Canada, says the first piece of good luck was that oil wasn’t flowing through the pipeline at the time.
Bart says the second was that the Red Deer River was swollen with recent rain, which washed the oil to the Gleniffer Reservoir where it can be more easily contained by booms, leaving only localized pockets of oil on the river.
“While there is shoreline along the river that has been impacted, it has been confined largely to a number of these localized areas, that when we get cordoned off, we can address more fully,” Bart told reporters at a news conference on Sunday.
Plains Midstream Canada estimates between 1,000 and 3,000 barrels of oil spilled Thursday. There’s no word yet on what caused the leak, but Bart told the news conference that the affected section of pipeline ran underneath the river.
Bart says there are people on foot who are looking for wildlife that may have been affected by the spill, but so far he says there have been few confirmed reports of injured animals so far.
He says some of the people on foot patrols have noise devices which can be used to scare birds away from landing on oil-affected areas.
Peter Hodson, a biology professor at Queen’s University and an expert on the effects of oil spills on fish and wildlife, says it’s promising that few struggling or injured animals have been spotted. He says it’s also good news for fish if the oil managed to get to the lake quickly before being churned up in the river.
But Hodson says the fact the water level in the river was high means grass and other land that’s further up on the riverbank is more likely to have been coated with oil.
“That means some animals, particularly the ducks that are nesting on the banks, and some of the animals like muskrat and beaver that use the banks quite a bit, may be that much more exposed to oil,” Hodson says.
Gleniffer Lake provides the water supply for the City of Red Deer and is a popular recreation area for fishing and boating. The company has been providing bottled water to people who draw their drinking water directly from the river and the reservoir. The City of Red Deer indicated on its website that it didn’t expect the spill to cause any problems.
Alberta Environment officials have been telling people to stay away from the water.
Bart says the booms have contained the oil to the western tip of the reservoir. “Our goal, obviously, is to preserve the water quality and drinking water quality and minimize the impact to wildlife, and get the spill cleaned up and the water and land restored as quickly as possible,” he said.
Hodson says the cleanup along the river has to be done carefully so as not to disrupt nests and other animal habitat. Again, he says because the water flow on the river was high and the oil is further up on the bank, the oil will have to be wiped or scraped off of grasslands or marsh.
“You often need big machines and that means you have fairly heavy equipment running over the riverbank,” Hodson explains.
“It’s one of those things where the cure can be worse than the disease so it has to be done with a great deal of care.”
This is the second recent serious spill for Plains Midstream. In April of last year a company pipeline in northwestern Alberta ruptured, leaking more than 4.5 million litres of oil. Just last week the company issued a release, showing clean up efforts near the spill are almost complete.
Alberta Premier Alison Redford assured Albertans over the weekend that the co-ordination to deal with the spill has been moving quickly, and she noted that spills are rare.
Redford has said this latest oil spill has raised questions about how oil pipelines are monitored and regulated. She has promised a full investigation and said if there are safety shortfalls the government will make changes.