A 1.3-million-gallon spill of emulsion—a mixture of bitumen, water and sand—south of Fort McMurray in the Alberta oil sands of Canada is one of the largest the country has ever seen, regulators admitted on Thursday July 16.
Discovered on July 15, it let loose five million liters over 16,000 square meters, or 3.95 acres, from a pipeline owned by Nexen Energy at the company's Long Lake oil sands facility. Alberta Energy Regulator (AER) spokesman Peter Murchland said on Thursday the spill has been contained and that cleanup is under way.
"My understanding is that the pipeline and pad site had been isolated and shut-in earlier today, effectively stopping the source of the release," said Murchland, Alberta Energy Regulator’s public affairs manager, to CBC News. "They go through a cleanup phase in accordance with the regulations set by the AER. And we'll have our subject-matter experts work alongside the operator, today and going forward, to make sure that safety and environmental requirements are met."
Nexen said in a statement that the spill was mostly within the pipeline corridor.
“All necessary steps and precautions have been taken, and Nexen will continue to utilize all its resources to protect the health and safety of our employees, contractors, the public and the environment, and to contain and clean up the spill,” the company said. “There were no injuries due to this incident and the pipeline has been isolated. Nexen continues to investigate.”
The company told the AER that “the release is mainly isolated to the pipeline right of way which includes muskeg,” the regulatory agency said in a statement. “The release has not flowed into a waterbody. There are no reported impacts to the public or wildlife at this time, and the AER has directed the operator to implement a wildlife protection plan in the area.”
This spill is larger than the 4.5-million-liter one (1.2 million gallons) that contaminated traditional Lubicon Cree territory in Little Buffalo First Nation in 2011. The 28,000-barrel spill sickened students at the community’s elementary school, forcing its temporary closure.
Decades of development in the Alberta oil sands have taken their toll on the environment and on indigenous communities, as Lubicon Cree citizen and Greenpeace volunteer Melina Laboucan-Massimo detailed in a 2011 video.
Pipeline spills are but one of the potential damages that concern First Nations, environmentalists and the scientific community alike. Researchers are urging a halt to new oil sands development to avoid catastrophic global warming.