Over a week after a pipeline leak spewed 28,000 barrels of crude oil onto Little Buffalo First Nation’s traditional land, the First Nation’s chief says he has had no communication from either the federal or provincial government on the mitigation efforts or health concerns in his community.
Chief Steve Nosky told The Journal he has had only limited information from Plains Midstream Canada, the company that operates the breached pipeline, and no calls from either level of government.
Nosky said the community has had to rely information coming from media reports, despite the massive spill being only 12 kilometers from Little Buffalo.
“It’s very disrespectful of the provincial and federal governments,” Nosky said. “At least they should make a phone call to alleviate the anxiety and concerns we have.”
The pipeline leak started April 29. Plains Midstream said the 47-year-old pipeline had been repaired by May 4.
Little Buffalo school was closed on April 29, and remained closed as of press time on May 9, after students and staff suffered headaches, dry heaving and nausea from what was described by witnesses as a “strong odour” in the community.
Both Plains and Alberta Environment have had air pollution monitoring equipment in the community since May 4; both report that no hydrocarbons are being detected in the air in Little Buffalo.
But Nosky said on May 9 that community members are still feeling headaches and sickness.
The chief added that this disaster raises a lot of questions on pipeline safety and monitoring, as deliberations continue over Enbridge’s Northern Gateway pipeline – planned to pipe bitumen from Alberta’s oilsands across northern Alberta and British Columbia to Prince Rupert, BC.
“Disasters like this one are a huge concern for both First Nations people and the general public,” Nosky said.
Northern Alberta oil spill leaves Little Buffalo reeling
The largest oil spill in Alberta in 30 years has forced the closure of Little Buffalo’s only school and left children and adults in the community lightheaded, nauseous and scared.
A leak in the Rainbow pipeline, which runs from Zama, Alberta to Edmonton, has released over 28,000 barrels of oil onto swamp land within 12 km of Little Buffalo, a hamlet of 225 people roughly 100 km northeast of Peace River.
While the pipeline breach has been patched, according to a spokesperson with Plains Midstream Canada, the effects of the leak are still being felt in Little Buffalo.
Lubicon Cree First Nation Chief Steve Notley told The Journal that people in his community who feel lightheaded and are dry heaving and feeling sick.
He said that the oil has leaked into beaver dams, and there are reports of beavers and ducks being pulled out of the area covered in oil.
“ERCB (Energy and Resources Conservation Board) and Plains haven’t quite been up front with their facts,” Notley said. “They neglected to mention the wildlife affected, or the safety and health issues within our First Nation.”
The leak was first noticed on April 29. Plains Midstream staff excavated the pipeline over the weekend after shutting off its 200,000 barrel-per-day capacity. According to an Alberta Energy Resources Conservation Board (ERCB) release on May 3, the flow of oil from the pipeline was capped after 28,000 barrels escaped.
ERCB said the spilled crude oil was contained in stagnant water along the pipeline’s 30-meter right of way, over an 800 meter-long area.
Students at Little Buffalo School were sent home on April 29 due to the smell of crude oil in the air.
Principal Brian Alexander told The Journal the school originally thought it was a propane leak from the building’s heating system. He finally heard about the oil spill on May 2, after sending the students home for the second school day.
At press time on May 9 the Little Buffalo School was still closed while air quality testing continued.
A teacher at the school, who wished to remain anonymous, said many of her colleagues have experienced stomach pains, dry heaving and sore noses and eyes from the smell. She said the odour became much stronger on May 2, and was still lingering on May 4.
“If we are adults and it’s affecting us like this, I can’t imagine what the kids are going through,” she said.
The crude oil flowing in the Rainbow pipeline originates in Norman Wells, NWT. The underground pipeline between Norman Wells and Zama connects with the Plains Midstream’s Rainbow pipeline just south of Zama, at Rainbow Lakes, Alberta.
The pipeline’s closure may force Imperial Oil to stop production on the Norman Wells oil field, which would jeopardize the natural gas supply that heats the community. The town of Norman Wells issued a state of emergency on May 9.
Meanwhile, Plains Midstream has a proposal underway for Rainbow Pipeline II, a 301 km pipeline that would connect the existing Enbridge Terminal near Edmonton to the existing Plains Nipisi Terminal north of Slave Lake.