A First Nations lawsuit alleges that government inaction is at least partly to blame for a Husky Energy oil spill that fouled water supplies for tens of thousands of people along the North Saskatchewan River last summer.
A statement of claim filed Thursday by the James Smith band in Melfort, Sask., against the provincial and federal governments says Saskatchewan ignored pipeline safety recommendations from its own auditor general made four years before the accident.
“The report concluded that such failure to effectively regulate pipelines could result in foreseeable harm to people or to the environment, and made recommendations as to how the provincial Crown could take action to ensure compliance with its statutory requirements,” the document says.
The lawsuit also claims the federal government failed to protect the band’s treaty rights.
About 40 per cent of a 225,000-litre spill from the Husky (TSX:HSE) pipeline reached the river on July 20, 2016. The plume began near the Saskatchewan-Alberta boundary and spread hundreds of kilometres downstream.
It forced the cities of Prince Albert, North Battleford and Melfort to shut off their water intakes for almost two months. Wildlife was also harmed.
The band alleges there are remnants of the spill along the shores of the river. They say the spill has damaged habitat for wildlife, including animals hunted by band members and endangered species.
Husky has said that more than 90 per cent of the oil has been recovered.
The Saskatchewan government acknowledges small deposits of oil remain in woody debris along the banks, in vegetation and buried in sediment.
Tests have found hydrocarbons do not exceed drinking water standards. Fish consumption is considered to be safe.
The government said this week cleanup will end in August.
The band charges the spill — caused when ground underneath a submerged section of pipe shifted — should never have happened.
In 2012, the province’s auditor wrote: “The Ministry did not have effective processes to ensure full compliance with The Pipelines Act, 1998 and The Pipelines Regulations, 2000. There are requirements under this legislation that are not being acted upon.
“Failure to regulate pipelines effectively could harm people or the environment.”
The band alleges most of the auditor’s five recommendations were still unmet at the time of the spill.
Last March, auditor Judy Ferguson repeated some of the 2012 concerns. She said in her annual report that the government still did not have written policies and procedures to evaluate existing pipelines.
None of the band’s allegations has been proven in court.
A provincial spokeswoman said this week that Husky’s repairs should make the site safer. The pipe now has thicker walls, and equipment has been installed to monitor water levels and ground movement as well as strain on the line.
Husky remains in negotiations with the band over the spill.
“We know this event had an impact on communities and First Nations downstream and we worked closely with all groups and regulators throughout on a co-ordinated response,” said company spokesman Mel Duvall. “From the outset we accepted full responsibility.
“We continue to meet regularly with all stakeholders to build on those relationships and work on future business development opportunities.”
Husky is being investigated and faces the possibility of federal and provincial charges.
— Follow Bob Weber on Twitter at @row1960