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It Could Be Months Before We Know Why a Chinese-Owned Pipeline Burst in Alberta

Nexen has apologized for the rupture of a pipeline carrying oil emulsion last week and says it won't be starting up production again on that project anytime soon. On Wednesday, it revealed it did not know exactly when the leak occurred.

by Hilary Beaumont
Jul 23 2015, 12:05am

Photo by Jeff McIntosh/The Canadian Press

The Nexen pipeline that spurted 5 million liters of thick, black bitumen emulsion into the northern Alberta wilderness could have been leaking for two weeks before it was discovered.

During a media tour of the "hot zone" Wednesday, the company told reporters it hadn't yet figured out the exact cause of one of the worst pipeline spills in Canadian history, but that they knew the leak happened between June 29 and July 15. It could take months for the investigation to wrap up.

Nexen, which is a subsidiary of China's state-owned Cnooc, has apologized for the spill, which leaked out of a break in a pipeline that was less than a year old. It said a crew of about 130 people is working 24 hours a day to contain the equivalent of 31,500 barrels of oil, water, and sand emulsion, but the global energy company is waiting for the bitumen to solidify before it can be removed. 

By Wednesday morning, Nexen had erected a bright orange fence around the site, and placed a fake bald eagle behind it to deter wildlife, which is a method suggested by the US Environmental Protection Agency. As reporters toured the site, wildlife cannons also went off and the smell of tar hung in the air. 

A dead duck was found before Nexen installed the wildlife deterrents. The company said no other animals had died as a result of the spill.

Byron Bates, a band councillor for the Fort McMurray No. 468 First Nation near the oil spill, said he had caught a similar tar-like scent outside his house 6 miles away.

The spill is on his First Nation's traditional territory. Trappers and hunters visit the area, so his community is concerned about the effects of the spill on the land, water, and wildlife. This will affect his community's traditional way of life, he told VICE News.

He visited the site on Friday, and described the mess as "a big marsh of black goo."

Nexen workers clean up oil spill near Fort McMurray. Photo by Jeff McIntosh/The Canadian Press

"It has the consistency of black roofing tar," he said over the phone Wednesday. "Real thick, you know. If you grab a big stick and put it into it, it'll stand up."

"It's devastating to the land. The land will never recover from this."

The bitumen isn't a big concern because it sits on top of the swamp, he said, but the processed water that was part of the spill can travel. "We don't know where that water is going," he said.

The closest body of water is an unnamed lake about a football field away from the spill. The company says the lake won't be affected, but Bates is worried the spill could end up in the water.

Nexen has apologized for the ruptured pipe, which affected a 16,000 square meter area. "We are deeply concerned with this and we sincerely apologize for the impact," Ron Bailey, a Nexen executive, said in a statement Friday.

The spill was discovered by a contract worker as they walked by, the company executive said.  

Bailey said the company has no immediate plans to bring the Kinosis Camp project back on production. "We will be focusing on understanding the root cause of any failure here and the reliability of our systems before we ever start up this system again," he said, according to Reuters.

Pipelines criss-cross the northern Alberta territory near the oil sands, and other oil spills have happened in recent years. In 2013, an Enbridge pipeline in the same area burst, spilling 750 barrels of oil. And in 2011, a Plains Midstream Canada ULC pipeline in the nearby First Nation of Lubicon Cree ruptured, leaking 4.5-million liters of oil into the community's traditional territory and beaver ponds.

The 2011 pipeline leak was the second largest in Alberta history, and led to environmental charges against the company.

Melina Laboucan-Massimo, a member of Greenpeace and the Lubicon Cree First Nation, flew over the 2011 spill in a helicopter and remembers the intense fumes from the spill.

"This is just another blatant reminder of how dangerous tar sands and pipelines can be," she told VICE News of the Nexen spill. 

"I think we're at a point in time where we need to stop building new pipeline projects," she continued. "We need to stop them before they're built and we need to really look at what are the potentials of a renewable energy economy in Alberta and in Canada."

Last week, Alberta's new premier maintained that pipelines are still the safest way to transport oil

Follow Hilary Beaumont on Twitter: @hilarybeaumont