One of Canada’s largest energy companies is facing a fine of at least one million dollars and ten charges in a Saskatchewan court for spilling 225,000 litres of oil into a river and contaminating local water supplies for thousands of rural residents.
A spokesperson for Calgary-based Husky Energy told VICE News the company accepts “full responsibility for the incident” and has apologized for the 2016 pipeline rupture, spending more than $107 million to clean-up the damage.
The ten charges against the company filed by federal and provincial officials include violations of the Fisheries and Migratory Birds Acts, said Husky spokesperson Mel Duvall.
“We deeply regret this happened and we are sorry for the impact it had,” Duvall told VICE News in an email. “We have worked hard every day since to make things right and we have learned from it,” he added, without specifically commenting on the legal case.
The trial began Thursday in Lloydminster Provincial Court following a 19-month investigation by federal and provincial officials after the spill into the North Saskatchewan River, near Maidstone, Saskatchewan.
Environmentalists say they are pleased that charges have been laid against the company but argue the incident raises questions about pipeline safety, provincial regulations of energy projects, and water security.
“A message is being sent that Husky needs to be held accountable,” said Peter Prebble from the Saskatchewan Environmental Society.
“We don’t want to just see fines levied; we want Husky to upgrade its whole pipeline system in the province,” Prebble told VICE News. “A lot more needs to be done policywise to prevent a spill like this from reoccurring.”
Environment and Climate Change Canada and the Saskatchewan Water Security Agency, the federal and provincial agencies pressing the case against Husky, said in a statement they would not be commenting on the case as litigation is ongoing. It’s unclear when a judge will make a decision in the case.
The Saskatchewan government has enacted some safety changes since the spill, said Prebble, including tougher rules for smaller flow lines moving oil from pumping sites near the Saskatchewan-Alberta border into a central location.
Prior to the spill, those lines did not need to obtain separate licenses from the Saskatchewan government, and now they must, he added.
Oil pipelines which cross provincial boundaries are regulated by the federal government, but the pipeline that ruptured moved oil within Saskatchewan, so it was subject to provincial oversight. Prebble says provincial oversight is weaker than what the National Energy Board would demand.
“There has been inadequate inspection of pipelines in Saskatchewan,” he said, adding that provincial regulators have pledged to increase inspections in areas where pipelines move oil near rivers following the disaster.
The spill impacted the drinking water of about 70,000 people in the cities of North Battleford, Prince Albert, Melfort, and other communities, forcing them to shut off their water intakes for almost two months, Prebble said.
Prebble said Husky has done a reasonably good job cleaning up the spill, but they should have acted faster to warn downstream residents right when the oil started leaking.
Husky’s spokesperson said the company did a follow-up assessment to see if any oil remained in the environment a year after the spill. “Very little was found,” Duvall said. “But wherever we did find something, we cleaned it up.”
Prebble, however, says it’s still “too soon to see if there is lasting damage” from the spill as some oil may still be stuck in the sediment in the river.