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Inadequate monitoring caused two oil spills, federal records show PDF Print E-mail
Earth News
Written by Joan Russow
Thursday, 24 January 2013 17:27



By http://o.canada.com/2013/01/21/inadequate-monitoring-caused-two-oil-spills-federal-records-show/

January 21, 2013Keith Stewart from Greenpeace Canada examines warning letter sent to Devon Energy.

Keith Stewart from Greenpeace Canada examines warning letter sent to Devon Energy
Photo by Andrew Norton, courtesy Greenpeace Canada

OTTAWA – Separate oil spills in 2010 – one from an abandoned pipeline owned by a midstream energy company, the other from an oilsands company’s well – were caused by inadequate oversight and monitoring, according to federal government records, which concluded they violated environmental laws.

The oilsands company in question has been featured in industry television advertising that praises other aspects of its environmental performance.

Alberta’s Energy Resources Conservation Board and Environment Canada investigated both spills. But neither issued public reports on their investigations until records of warning letters sent to the companies were released to Postmedia News using federal access to information legislation.

Violating provisions of the Fisheries Act that prohibit pollution of fish habitat can result in fines of up to $1 million and imprisonment for up to three years, Environment Canada said in warning letters sent following investigations into the spills.

An Environment Canada spokesman told Postmedia News in an email that the department determined the warnings were the “most appropriate enforcement response” following a thorough review of information gathered during inspections of both sites. The department also said that it chooses the enforcement mechanisms most likely to be effective in ensuring problems are fixed. Both companies said they had addressed all of the allegations.

In one case, a pipe that had not been used in four years leaked a few hundred litres – about two barrels – of oil on Sept. 23, 2010 into an Edmonton creek that leads to the North Saskatchewan River.

“Gibson Energy ULC made a business decision to keep the Kinder Morgan lateral full of crude oil and to not purge it with nitrogen,” wrote Deanna Cymbaluk, an Edmonton-based inspector and fishery officer with Environment Canada, in a warning letter sent on Jan. 22, 2011,

Cymbaluk also wrote that a “brown foamy substance” found in the creek appeared to result from corrosion on a poorly maintained pipe that leaked.

“Based on the information obtained, I have reason to believe that Gibson Energy ULC was responsible for the release of a deleterious substance into (a creek) leading to the North Saskatchewan River and they were not duly diligent in preventing this release.”

The Gibson Energy pipe feeds into the existing Trans Mountain pipeline terminal operated by Kinder Morgan in Edmonton, but the faulty pipe itself was not a property of Kinder Morgan, which is currently proposing a multi-billion-dollar expansion of its existing line to Vancouver to ship more heavy oil from Alberta’s oilsands sector.

Gibson Energy also received a separate warning letter from Cymbaluk on June 10, 2010 for allegedly failing to test an emergency plan at another facility that stored butane and propane.

Reached by phone, the manager of communications for Gibson Energy, Nicole Collard, declined to provide details of how the company responded to the allegations raised by Environment Canada, because they were more than two years old.

“We’re not interested in participating in this,” she said.

A spokesman for the Alberta regulator, Darin Barter, said the board issued a “high-risk non-compliance” order against Gibson Energy for “improperly discontinuing/abandoning a pipeline.” He said the infrastructure was later repaired and properly abandoned.

In the second case, that of an oilsands blowout at the Jackfish facility managed by Devon Energy on July 10, 2010, a company official told Postmedia News during an in-depth interview that it was transparent about what happened, sharing details with the regulator and its competitors, while working hard to address the causes.

“There were certain risk areas around the well-head and how the wells were operated that we didn’t fully understand, quite honestly,” said Tim Waters, a manager of operations engineering with Devon Energy at the time of the incident.

In a warning letter dated, March 10, 2011, Environment Canada’s Cymbaluk wrote that the failure of the well-head at Devon’s Jackfish facility was due to several human factors, including a failure to understand previous damage caused by sand erosion, “poorly documented protocols” and a “lack of planning for a well failure.”

The facility is part of a new trend of “steam-assisted gravity” oilsands operations that inject steam deep underground to extract bitumen, without the major land disturbance commonly associated with open-pit oilsands mines.

“We learned a lot from this incident and although we are certainly not happy it happened, I’m very happy with how we reacted and learned from it,” Waters said. “I think the industry has been very receptive and interested in learning from this as well.”

The oil spill had started with a series of minor failures beginning in February 2010, and eventually led to the blowout on July 10 that took 36 hours to control. It resulted in a leak of about 350,000 litres – or 3,000 barrels – of bitumen into the surrounding environment, including a fish-bearing creek near the facility.

“I do think that what this incident has done is (it has) really fine-tuned our focus on a few areas, and I’m absolutely convinced that we will not have an incident like this ever again, within our operations,” said Waters.

An employee of Devon is among those featured in recent oilsands industry television ads that have promoted its efforts to save water at the same facility where the blowout occurred.

That didn’t impress one environmental organization. “When the oil industry’s poster child for clean water can’t stop a blow-out for 36 hours, it makes me wish we had stronger truth-in-advertising laws in this country,” said Keith Stewart, a climate and energy campaigner from Greenpeace.

But Waters said the English and French-language television ads accurately show that the company is a good operator that cares about the environment.

The company also submitted its own summary of an internal company review on the blowout at its Jackfish facility; it can be found on the Alberta regulator’s website.

Barter said the provincial board followed up with Devon Energy, conducting 14 subsequent site inspections, and was confident that the company understood the “seriousness of the incident” and took appropriate measures to reduce the risk of further incidents in the future.

He also said that the board does not publish reports from investigations conducted by field offices, which was the case for both incidents. He said field investigations occur when the local office has the necessary expertise to review an incident without requiring outside assistance, but that this is decided on a case-by-case basis.

In its most recent annual report on enforcement actions from 2010-2011, Environment Canada said it recorded 606 cases involving warning letters to alleged offenders, as well as 26 cases involving prosecutions, 114 resulting in charges and 37 that concluded with convictions.Parliament’s environment watchdog, Scott Vaughan, said it was not unusual for regulators to struggle with efforts to track compliance with laws, but he said Canada’s southern neighbour has a track record of issuing billions of dollars in fines for environmental infractions.

“If (U.S. officials) find an infraction and if it’s serious enough, they will make a commitment to pursue the case for several years,” said Vaughan, who met with officials from the U.S. Department of Justice, the Environmental Protection Agency and the White House as part of a recent investigation into environmental 




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