As debate rages south of the 49th Parallel over developments such as the Keystone XL pipeline, bitumen from four underground oil spills is quietly seeping into wetlands and soils in the oil sands in northern Alberta—and has been for at least three months, if not longer.
Bitumen leakage now totals at least 1.2 million liters—about 8,024 barrels, or 317,000 gallons, the Alberta Energy Regulator, a provincial agency, said in an August 16 update. And despite claims by the operator, Canadian Natural Resources Limited, that the spills are contained and being remediated, recent provincial statements indicate that that is not the case.
“It’s ongoing. The spill is still ongoing,” said Cara Tobin, a spokesperson for the provincial agency Alberta Energy Regulator, to the website DesmogCanada.com on August 6. “There is still bitumen coming up from the ground.”
The spills at Canadian Natural Resources’ Primrose facility first came to light in mid-July, but they had been ongoing for weeks, and one may even date back to last winter, the Toronto Star reported on July 19. The operations lie on the Cold Lake Air Weapons Range, which is also an active weapons-testing site for the Canadian military and thus restricted to public access.
Documents brought to light by the Star show that 26,000 barrels of bitumen combined with surface water had been removed between May, when cleanup began, and mid-July, when the spills came to light via a television station. More than 4,500 barrels were straight bitumen, the Star reported. The latest update nearly doubles that number.
“Everybody [at the company and in government] is freaking out about this,” said a whistle-blowing government scientist to the newspaper back in July. “We don’t understand what happened. Nobody really understands how to stop it from leaking, or if they do they haven’t put the measures into place.”
The company issued a statement on July 31 saying that it was remediating the spills.
“Each location been secured, clean up, recovery and reclamation activities are well underway,” the company said. “The bitumen emulsion does not pose a risk to health or human safety.”
Nearby Cold Lake First Nation, whose residents are Dene, was of a completely different mind.
“We are extremely alarmed with the environmental damage from the blow out that occurred at Cold Lake Weapons Range as this is in the federally recognized traditional territory of Cold Lake First Nations and close to CLFN Indian Reserve 149C,” said Cold Lake First Nation Chief Bernice Martial in a statement on August 7. “We contacted Canadian Natural Resources Limited (CNRL) to express CLFN’s concerns and we are now demanding answers and want factual information on the contamination of four recent surface releases of bitumen emulsion from oil wells.”
Canadian Natural Resources did admit that “unfortunately some animal fatalities have occurred including 16 birds, 7 small mammals and 38 amphibians. Two beavers, two birds and two muskrats are currently being cared for prior to being returned to their natural environment.”
Critics of the process being used to extract the bitumen suspect that the leaks stem from a method of “steaming” the ground in a process not unlike fracking (hydraulic fracturing of rock that loosens oil and gas deposits in shale). Steaming entails injecting highly pressurized water into the sands to melt the bitumen so that it can be pumped to the surface. Canadian Natural Resources said that its process is not the cause—the company does not use enough pressure to cause that type of leakage, a spokesman told the Star, and blames instead improperly capped wells from other companies’ defunct operations.
The Dene are demanding not only answers but inclusion in the evaluation and cleanup process as well.
“Our community needs to be respectfully involved in the remediation of this environmental disaster as our health and safety hangs in the balance,” Martial said. “We live, hunt, fish in the area and need to know the damage that has been done to our land, water and wildlife.”