One of the biggest pipeline leaks in Alberta history spilled about five million litres (32,000 barrels) of bitumen, oil, sand, and water last week at Nexen Energy’s tar sands/oil sands facility in Long Lake, about 35 kilometres southeast of Fort McMurray.
The National Observer notes that the volume was larger than the 2010 spill in which an Enbridge pipeline spilled 27,000 barrels of oil into the Kalamazoo River. That incident was the worst land spill in United States history.
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“I was amazed at how big [the leak] was,” said band councillor Byron Bates of the nearby Fort McMurray First Nation. “You read five million litres, but when you go out and see it, it’s something else.”
The Long Lake facility has been described as the “crown jewel” of Nexen’s tar sands/oil sands operation, the Observer reports. The Calgary Herald adds that Nexen was “baffled” by the leak in a double-walled conduit that was installed just nine months ago. Ron Bailey, senior vice-president of Nexen’s Canadian operations, said the leak was detected by a contractor walking by after the pipeline’s automatic shutoff system failed.
Early reports indicated the leak occurred on a feeder pipe between a wellhead and a processing plant. It covered about 16,000 square metres, mostly within the pipeline corridor, but the emulsion was seeping into the ground as cleanup crews scrambled to respond.
Bates told CBC the affected land must be brought back to “pristine condition.” While the area near the pipeline isn’t used as much for hunting, trapping, and other traditional purposes as it once was, he said the oil and gas industry won’t be in the area forever.
“Our biggest concern is the land,” he said. “In 50 or 70 years the oil companies are going to be gone,” and “we want to be able to use our land again.” He said the band was pleased that Nexen had given community representatives full access to the site and shared its plans for cleaning up the emulsion, CBC reports.
Greenpeace Canada climate and energy campaigner Mike Hudema noted that the leak took place while provincial and territorial premiers were hammering out a final version of their Canadian Energy Strategy. “This leak is a good reminder that Alberta has a long way to go to address its pipeline problems and that communities have good reasons to fear having more built,” he said in a statement. “We need to stop new pipeline projects before they’re built and focus on building renewable sources of energy that are sustainable and won’t threaten communities, our environment, and the planet.”
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