A breach in a pipeline at a Suncor Energy Inc. oilsands facility north of Fort McMurray leaked 2,200 barrles of contaminated water into the Athabasca River on Monday.
The 10-ft pipeline, measuring 4 inches wide, broke after it froze Monday morning, allowing 350 cubic metres of “process affected water” – water used in Suncor’s refinery operations – to flow out to a partially frozen outfall pond containing treated water and on to the river.
“We have determined that some process affected water flowed out to the partially frozen pond and into an approved discharge point. It was diluted with water intended for release and then flowed into the river,” according to a Suncor-issued statement on Tuesday afternoon.
Tests confirmed the leaked liquid was a combination of water with suspended solids – clays and fine particulates – along with inorganic and organic compounds. Though the company did not get into specifics, it said the water did not contain bitumen.
The flow was stopped at approximately 4:00 p.m. on Monday after leaking for 10 hours, according to Suncor. The company was unable to give details on the length and volume of the leak until late on Wednesday.
“As soon as we realized there was a discharge into the river, work immediately began to stop the flow,” Suncor officials said in an update on Thursday morning.
A third party is investigating the impact of the process affected water on the river, which Suncor said would likely have “a short term, negligible impact on the river” based on the current rate flow of the river and volume calculations.
As a precautionary measure, Suncor continued to take water samples at downstream locations along the Athabasca as of Thursday.
The company apologized for the leak.
“We know water quality issues are a paramount concern to our stakeholders. This incident is unacceptable to us. Our focus is on investigating how this occurred and ensuring this doesn’t happen again.”
The Alberta department of Environment and Sustainable Resource Development (ESRD) was onsite early Monday taking samples from the river and the process water to be sent to the lab for “rush analysis” to determine their level of toxicity.
“Alberta Environment has been notified of the incident and all necessary resources have been directed to the response,” ESRD Minister Diana McQueen announced on Tuesday. “At this time, our experts are overseeing the incident to determine what, if any, potential impacts may have occurred and we will continue to be strict in our oversight activities to ensure industry meets Alberta’s high standards for responsible resource development.”
The downstream Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation (ACFN) responded to the leak on Tuesday, saying the accident confirms the Aboriginal community’s concerns over oilsands development along the river they depend on for drinking water.
“As chief of a downstream community in the region, this type of incident is of great concern and substantiates my community’s long-time concerns of the negative and adverse impacts this industry has on our ecosystem, traditional lands and cultural rights,” ACFN Chief Allan Adam said in an official statement.
Adam was in Ottawa for a press conference just days before the pipeline burst as part of a delegation of First Nations announcing their united opposition to proposed bitumen pipelines and the expansion of oilsands industry in northern Alberta.
While Adam said his First Nation is not anti-development, ACFN is concerned with weak environmental regulations, which he said are catered toward industry.
“This incident in Suncor’s operations is just another example of what’s at stake and the governments’ and industry’s failure to safeguard the environment and people,” he said. “It also serves as a reminder of the weak environmental monitoring systems and the inability of the region to take on more development.”
Suncor scrapping Voyageur upgrader project
The company also announced last week that it would not be proceeding with its troubled Voyageur upgrader project following the decision by partner Total E&P Canada to pull out of the venture.
“Since 2010, market conditions have changed significantly, challenging the economics of the Voyageur upgrader project,” Steve Williams, Suncor president and chief executive officer, said in a news release on Wednesday. “That’s why we undertook a thorough review of the project to determine whether it met our criteria for long-term, profitable growth.”
Suncor purchased Total’s interest in the upgrader for $515 million last Wednesday, gaining full control over the project.
As the company’s third upgrader, Voyageur would see 200,000 barrels per day of upgraded product capacity added to Suncor’s oilsands facilities.