A pipeline rupture near the heart of Alberta's oil sands has spewed 5-million liters of bitumen, wastewater, and sand, in what is being described as one of the worst spills in Canadian history.
The Nexen leak was first discovered Wednesday — and made public on Thursday — at its Long Lake facility, about 22 miles southeast of Fort McMurray.
The global energy company says the leak — which is roughly the equivalent of 31,500 barrels of emulsion, or two Olympic-sized pools — has since been "stabilized" and cleanup is underway.
"We are deeply concerned with this and I'll just say we sincerely apologize for the impact that this has caused," said Ron Bailey, a senior vice president of Canadian operations at the Chinese subsidiary, at a press conference on Friday.
He said the detection system in place that should have alerted the company to a breach did not in this instance, and the "visible burst" was discovered by a contractor visually inspecting the line, so it's not clear when exactly it occurred. The pipeline was fairly new, having been installed last year, and had two layers. He said an investigation is underway to figure out what went wrong.
"We shut down our operations immediately when we found the leak," said Bailey. It occurred in a somewhat remote area, which is near two indigenous communities. Bailey would not name the manufacturer of the pipe, saying that the company takes responsibility for what occurred. "We have walked the entire pipeline length looking for any other signs of other leaks and there are none," he added.
Nexen reported that the spill had affected a 16,000 square meter area, and that the spill was mainly limited to the area around the pipeline, which includes muskeg. Bailey said the company has detected "no immediate impact" to a nearby lake, adding that "one of our key responses has been to try to protect the lake."
"There are no reported impacts to the public or wildlife at this time and the [Alberta Energy Regulator] has directed the operator to implement a wildlife protection plan in the area," the regulator, which also responded to the incident, said in a statement.
Nexen said "all necessary steps and precautions" have been taken and that it will do everything that is required to clean up the spill. No one was injured.
Greenpeace Canada, however, said the leak is a "stark reminder" of the dangers of oil sand production and shows that Alberta has a long way to go to address its "pipeline problems."
"We need to stop new pipeline projects before they're built and focus on building renewable sources of energy that are sustainable and won't threaten communities, our environment, and the planet," said Mike Hudema, with Greenpeace's Climate and Energy team, in a statement.
Alberta Premier Rachel Notley told Edmonton's CBC radio that the government will do its own investigation into what happened and whether everything was done to catch the spill when it occurred. She said she was "troubled" by the "unfortunate accident" but said that pipelines are still the best way to transport oil and gas. "For instance, in Quebec, they know full well that rail is much more problematic a transportation method," she said, a reference to the disastrous train crash that decimated the town of Lac Megantic two years ago.
Reuters called the Nexen leak one of the largest spills on land in North America. In 2010, almost 21,000 barrels of crude leaked into Michigan from an Enbridge line.
The pipeline spill on the California coast earlier this year spilled 79,000 liters of oil into the ocean.