Special trucks were hard at work vacuuming up an oil-emulsion spill the size of three football fields on July 19 as Nexen Energy apologized for the pipeline rupture that sent 1.3 million gallons of mixed sand, bitumen and water into the muskeg.
The spill, discovered on July 15 by a contractor, did not register on what the company had thought was a “fail-safe” high-tech detection system. Nor did the state-of-the-art construction—the brand-new pipeline was installed only last year—stand up to whatever caused it to burst and let loose the volume of two Olympic-sized swimming pools of muck.
"This is a modern pipeline," Ron Bailey, Nexen's senior vice-president of Canadian operations, told the Canadian Press. "We have pipeline integrity equipment, some very good equipment," he said. "Our investigation is looking through exactly why that wasn't alerting us earlier."
The company apologized for the breakage.
"We are deeply concerned with this," said Ron Bailey, Nexen's senior vice-president of Canadian operations, according to CBC News. "We sincerely apologize for the impact this had caused."
The Alberta Energy Regulator (AER) issued an Environmental Protection Order to Nexen, directing the company to contain the spill, identify and notify affected parties, and test the area for hydrocarbons and chlorides; develop plans to manage the body of water near where the spill occurred, reduce or eliminate affects on wildlife, and map out remediation methods. The company must also post daily public progress reports on its website and submit a final report to the AER within 30 days of completing all the work involved.
Fort McMurray First Nation, whose treaty rights encompass some of the spill area, want Nexen to do better than that. When the company is gone, in however many decades it takes, they want the area to be left as pristine as when the company found it.
“Our biggest concern is the land,” said Fort McMurray First Nation band councilor Byron Bates to the Canadian Press. “In 50 or 70 years, the oil companies are going to be gone. We want to be able to use our land again. Our biggest concern is to make sure it’s brought back to pristine condition.”
The fear, of course, is that the likelihood of that degree of remediation is about as remote as the area of the spill.
"There is no way to clean or reclaim the muskeg," said Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation spokesperson Eriel Deranger in a news release quoted by CBC News on July 18. "Destruction and contamination like this that directly affects a key component of our ecosystems is affecting First Nations' ability to access lands and territories for hunting, fishing, gathering and trapping rights, rights protected by both the Constitution and our treaties."
The spill endangers the ecosystem, said Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation Chief Allan Adams in a statement quoted by the National Observer.
“A spill this size into the Muskeg, which is an important part of the eco-system in the region and houses many of our medicines, berries and habitat for species our people rely on for sustenance, is extremely serious,” Adams said. “The muskeg are a part of the basin and feed into the groundwater system. The location of the spill is dangerously close to the Clearwater River that flows directly into the Athabasca River. The repercussions from the incident could potentially be felt far and wide by those that rely on the Athabasca Basin.”
First Nations as far away as British Columbia echoed those concerns.
"It’s incredibly disturbing to know that this spill went undetected for a significant period of time. We’re not sure how long it took for the volume that is being reported to leak out,” said Union of B.C. Indian Chiefs Grand Chief Stewart Phillip in Vancouver, according to the National Observer. “We’re constantly told that there are world-class systems in place that closely monitor the operations of all oil carrying pipelines, and clearly that’s not the case. We’re being grossly misinformed by industry."