Feds get involved with bitumen leaks near Cold Lake

Feds get involved with bitumen leaks near Cold Lake
According to Canadian Natural Resources Ltd., approximately 9,000 barrels of bitumen emulsion have been recovered to date from the impacted areas around Cold Lake, Alta.Photo: Cold Lake First Nations.

Environment Canada has launched an investigation of its own into ongoing bitumen leaks at an oilsands site around the Cold Lake area of northeastern Alberta, nearly four months after the first spill was detected.

Federal officials remain tight lipped, however, as to why they are taking a deeper look alongside two ongoing investigations by Alberta’s Environment and Sustainable Resource Development (ESRD) department and Canadian Natural Resources Ltd. (CNRL), the company running the operation on the Cold Lake Air Weapons Range, traditional Treaty No. 6 territory belonging to Cold Lake First Nations (CLFN).

“Environment Canada’s enforcement branch is currently assessing the situation with respect to federal environmental and wildlife laws within its jurisdiction, and has opened an investigation. No further comment can be provided at this time,” Mark Johnson, a spokesperson for Environment Canada, told The Journal in an email.

Four separate leaks have been discovered on the Primrose and Wolf Lake sites – the first taking place in May – and approximately 9,000 barrels of bitumen emulsion have been recovered to date, the company stated in its most recent update on Aug. 25. CNRL is now focused on a reduced impact area of 13.5 hectares, a 35 per cent reduction since the original report earlier this summer.

The company stated the rate of bitumen emulsion seepage in all four locations now totals less than 20 barrels a day.

According to the Alberta Energy Regulator’s Aug. 16 update, total wildlife impacts between all four sites include “two beavers, 31 birds, 82 amphibians and 31 small mammals deceased.”

Three beavers, 17 birds and two small mammals are being cared for at a Wildlife Rehabilitation Centre prior to being returned to their natural environment.

The company has been on the lookout for migrating birds, it said, and is “pleased to observe birds altering their course as they near our bird deterrent systems.”

CNRL has built an aluminum scaffold structure over the fissure at the water body site so birds cannot land and is conducting regular wildlife monitoring sweeps. The company also has trail cameras with remote and infrared motion sensors set up to detect animal activity.

CNRL said the feds have been involved from day one.

“They have been involved since the incidents were initially reported and we are working with all levels of government and regulators, including Environment Canada, in understanding the incident, the cause and our plans going forward,” said Zoe Addington, CNRL’s public affairs advisor.

The company believes the cause of the bitumen seepage into lush boreal forest and wetland areas stems from “mechanical failures of wellbores in the vicinity of the controlled areas.”

CNRL said it’s in the process of identifying and investigating these wellbores.

“We are drilling hydrogeological delineation wells adjacent to the affected locations to aid in the investigation,” the company stated, while working “diligently” with the Alberta Energy Regulator (AER) and ESRD.

CNRL also said it has designated decontamination areas, and all used personal protection equipment, absorbent materials, vegetation and soil is disposed off site at specially designed waste management facilities.

Work is being done on exposed fissures like this one to investigate the sites where bitumen is seeping to the surface.

Photo: Canadian Natural Resources Ltd.

Work is being done on exposed fissures like this one to investigate the sites where bitumen is seeping to the surface.

First Nations cancel meeting with company

CLFN had scheduled a meeting with CNRL last week to discuss the continuous bitumen seepage and grasp a deeper understanding of what’s going on and what went wrong.

The First Nation cancelled the meeting, however, after its request to the company for additional information was ignored, councillor and former CLFN chief Walter Janvier told The Journal.

“There was no need to sit down with them just for the sake of it because every time they sit down with us, they just say they’ve consulted with us. So we’re not going to accept those kind of dealings. We prefer to have the proper information we’ve asked for so we can base our decisions on facts and they’re not prepared to provide us with those facts, so we have postponed the meeting,” Janvier said.

Two more leaks found: CLFN

CLFN has been told from their own sources on the ground that there are now six spots where bitumen is being released to the surface, contrary to the four locations CNRL has detected and made known to the public, Janvier said.

“So we’re still trying to get them to confirm that…They have been in somewhat of a denial mode so we haven’t heard anything formal yet,” Janvier said. “We’re making every attempt to get to the bottom of this and get more information to look at the process and see if they can alter the process so it does not cause environmental damage now and in the future.”

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