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Rainbow Spill— Who Will Address Alberta's Pipeline Risks?

10 May 2011

The recent failure of the 45-year old Plains All American Rainbow pipeline, which discharged 4.5 million litres (28,000 barrels) of crude oil into boreal wetlands and forest in northwestern Alberta, raises significant concerns about pipeline integrity and operator and regulatory response.

“Both the pipeline spill circumstances and regulatory response suggest that risks to Alberta wilderness areas as well as potentially to the health of nearby communities are poorly managed,” says Carolyn Campbell of AWA. “It is crucial that lessons are learned from mistakes made in managing this incident.”

Alberta Wilderness Association (AWA) calls for an immediate and transparent investigation into the safety and health risks raised by this incident, by both Alberta Environment and the Energy Resources Conservation Board (ERCB). This information must be used to significantly reduce pipeline spill risks.

Back in July 2010, in response to the Enbridge Inc. pipeline leak in Michigan, Albertans were reassured by ERCB spokesperson Bob Curran. "It's unlikely that there would be many segments in Alberta that are decades old, unless they're on the types of lines where they're not really prone to corrosion or leaks,” said Curran at the time. “Or they're carrying substances that wouldn't cause a lot of problems if there was a leak." But recent events dismiss any false sense of security. Forty percent of Alberta’s pipeline system was built before 1990; the Rainbow line was built in 1966. The ERCB estimates that for every 1,000 kilometres of pipeline, about two failures happen each year. Considering the province is criss-crossed by over 400,000 kilometres of pipeline, this estimate predicts approximately 800 failures a year.

The most recent of these ‘failures’ has allowed 4.5 million litres to enter the surrounding wetlands. Despite the ERCB’s description of this area in its news release as “nearby stands of stagnant water”, boreal peat wetlands make up at least 40% of northern Alberta’s landscape, are rich in species diversity, and provide critical links between surface water and groundwater.  “Why is this government agency reinforcing the erroneous view that natural wetlands are of no ecological consequence?” asks Campbell.

The pipeline operator detected “an unstable condition” on April 28 at 7 p.m., but it took nearly eight hours to determine a release occurred. The pipeline was closed soon after, but the shutoff valves nearest the rupture were reportedly 137 kilometres apart on the 770-kilometre pipeline. Why were monitoring equipment and procedures not robust enough to prevent the large spill that occurred? Why not upgrade operating standards for closer spacing of shutoff valves to preclude a large spill?

“The current management and monitoring standards of the ERCB are clearly unable to prevent large-scale damage,” says Madeline Wilson of AWA. “Once again, the health and integrity of valuable ecosystems foot the bill of seemingly ‘cheap’ energy.”

For more information:

  • Carolyn Campbell, AWA Conservation Specialist, (403) 283-2025
  • Madeline Wilson, AWA Conservation Specialist, (403) 283-2025

Posted May 10, 2011 by AEN

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