Extent of drinking water contamination unclear after Husky oil spill

By Alex Macpherson, originally posted on August 2, 2016


Almost two weeks after a ruptured Husky Energy Inc. pipeline dumped 200,000 litres of heavy crude near and into the North Saskatchewan River, it remains unclear how badly the vital body of water is contaminated.

“My expectation is that the water isn’t that dangerous, but I need to see all the analyses and have it vetted by the various experts,” Ministry of Environment Ash Olesen told reporters during the provincial government’s daily operational briefing on Tuesday.

Government authorities have collected 1,217 water samples since the spill occurred late on July 20 or early July 21 — Husky has released conflicting timelines — and more than 900 have been analyzed, Olesen said.

While the province has received the results of 256 of those tests, it won’t say how badly the river — which is the main drinking water source for North Battleford and Prince Albert — is polluted with oil.

“It would be proper to brief the stakeholders first, and I think we can all appreciate that,” said Patrick Boyle, the Water Security Agency’s director of corporate communications, adding that more information will “probably” be released Wednesday.

As of Tuesday afternoon, at least one major stakeholder had not received information from the government about the quality of the water flowing down the river.

“We are awaiting information to be provided regarding data samples,” a spokeswoman for Prince Albert city manager Jim Toye wrote in an email around 4 p.m.

The possibility that drinking water had been fouled with oil and other chemicals forced communities along the North Saskatchewan to take drastic action after the spill, leaving about 70,000 people with limited access to potable water.

North Battleford shut down its secondary water treatment plant’s river intake and subsequently ran a line to Battleford, on the other side of the river valley.

After shutting down its own intake, Prince Albert imposed water restrictions to extend its reserves while two long lines to alternate sources — the Little Red and South Saskatchewan rivers — were completed.

Prince Albert Conservative MP Randy Hoback said while he had some concerns about the initial response to the spill, he’s since seen “drastic improvements.” At the same time, some luck was involved, he added.

“If (Prince Albert) wouldn’t have had that rain last Thursday that filled up their flooding reservoirs, they would have been in big trouble,” Hoback said.

The city of about 35,000 people appears to have avoided that trouble, and now has two alternate water sources operating, said Jeff Da Silva, Prince Albert’s public works manager of engineering services.

The six-kilometre hose to the Little Red River has been operating for three days, and the 30-kilometre line to the South Saskatchewan began pumping to the city’s water treatment plant on Tuesday, Da Silva said.

It’s unclear how much establishing the pipelines will cost the city, but the final figure is expected to be in the “millions of dollars,” Toye told reporters.

The full extent of the contamination is also unclear. Toye said his staff has not received information from the consultants the city hired to test the water, or from those testing the water for Husky and the provincial government.

“I do believe that in the following days we’ll have information about what’s exactly in the water, how it can be treated, and how far downstream it’s come … There’s a lot of unanswered questions right now,” he said.

The incident began when a 19-year-old pipeline designed to carry heavy crude from Husky’s steam-assisted oil extraction operations east of Lloydminster and north of the river failed about 300 metres from the shoreline.

The pipeline is part of a broad network of lines, known as the Saskatchewan Gathering System, which the company is expanding to accommodate production from new thermal projects, including Edam East, Edam West and Vawn.

Mel Duvall, a spokesman for the Calgary-based energy giant, said while he couldn’t provide a precise timeline, the spill occurred as the company was “restarting the line as a result of work associated with this project.”

Duvall said he couldn’t comment on why the pipeline failed. That information will be available once the company completes its investigation into the incident, he said.

Provincial emergency management commissioner Duane McKay said it’s too early to know how much the cleanup and remediation efforts will cost, but there is “some expectation” Husky will foot some or all of the bill.

Duvall said Husky is “absolutely” responsible for covering the cost of cleanup.

“We’ve said from the beginning this was our incident and we take full responsibility.”

Learn More