FORT MCMURRAY, Alta. – Tests are being done to determine whether a waste water spill at an oilsands plant in northern Alberta made its way into a nearby river.
The leak was discovered Monday at a Suncor (TSX:SU.TO) base plant north of Fort McMurray.
Company spokeswoman Sneh Seetal said a pipe about four metres long froze and burst, sending “process-affected water” into a partially frozen outfall pond containing treated water.
Seetal said it’s not yet known what exactly was in the waste water and how much of it was discharged.
But the leak lasted for at least a few hours. Seetal said the company notified government officials about 1 p.m. and the pipe was shut down three hours later. The move has not affected the plant’s operations.
Water samples have been taken from the pond and from the nearby Athabasca River. Seetal said tests should reveal the contents of the waste water.
It would be premature to speculate whether oil is found in the water, she added.
“It is water that has been used in our extraction and upgrading process and has not yet been treated,” she said Tuesday.
“Because the process-affected water mixed with outflow pond water, which is treated and meets regulated requirements for release, we have started testing to determine the exact contents of the water.”
Greenpeace Canada reacted as soon as the leak was reported. Spokesman Mike Hudema said processed water often contains bitumen and dangerous chemicals.
He said Suncor should be keeping a closer eye on its pipes during cold weather. “For a pipeline to freeze on their watch is quite troubling.”
He’s further frustrated about the lack of information the company is giving out. It should know what is in its waste water and easily be able to calculate the volume that went through the pipe, he suggested.
“The public has a right to know. I believe Suncor has that information. They’re just not giving it out.
Alberta Environment spokesman Wayne Wood said the department is relying on Suncor to supply numbers about the spill. Government staff were on the site Tuesday overseeing containment and cleanup, he said.
Wood didn’t know how close the pond is to the river, but said tests will be done to see if there has been any contamination.
“There is no indication yet at this particular time as to whether any water entered the river. But we took samples from the river at any rate to analyze and just to make sure what, if anything, may have gotten into the river.”
Although Suncor said it doesn’t yet know if any waste water spilled into the river, the chief of the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation said company officials informed the reserve that it had.
“It got into the river, guaranteed,” said Allan Adam.
He expects it will take about six days for any spilled fluid to flow north and reach the community. The reserve sits on the shore of Lake Athabasca, where residents get their drinking water.
Adam recently returned from a trip to Ottawa where he and other First Nations leaders met to underline their opposition to the Northern Gateway and Keystone XL pipelines.
A pipeline breach so soon after he got home just makes it more clear that the industry needs to be more responsible, he said.
“There has to be another means, or mechanism, put in place to make sure community well-being is looked after in regards to how these lines are put in place.”
— By Chris Purdy in Edmonton