Apache pipeline spills 60,000 barrels of ‘salty water’ in northwest Alberta
Nathan Vanderklippe, The Globe and Mail, June 12 2013
Note: Apache is the main owner of the proposed Pacific Trails Pipeline.
Apache Corp. has spilled an estimated 60,000 barrels – or 9.5 million litres – of produced water from a pipeline in northwestern Alberta, one of the largest spills in provincial history.
The company discovered the spill on June 1, but it and the Alberta government declined to provide estimates of its size until Wednesday morning.
In a statement, Apache said the spill affected an area of 42 hectares, roughly the area of 52 CFL fields. It is located some 20 kilometres north of Zama City, Alta. It is more than double the size of a Plains Midstream Canada oil spill in April, 2011, a spill initially called the largest in Alberta in nearly four decades. It comes at a time of continued sensitivity to spills, as the risks of pipeline transportation capture public concern amid applications by the oil industry for a series of controversial new pipelines.
The Apache spill, however, is of a different nature. Where Plains spilled oil, Apache spilled produced water, a non-potable substance that flows to the surface with oil and natural gas. It contains salts, minerals and hydrocarbons – the latter are typically removed so they can be sold. Apache said “the water release at Zama involved produced water that had already been treated to remove hydrocarbons.”
Apache spokesman Paul Wyke called it “salty water,” that contains what he called “trace amounts” of hydrocarbons. “Ongoing sampling will help determine that composition,” he said.
In the U.S., companies have historically been allowed to release some produced water into saltwater bays. In Alberta, it is typically reinjected below the surface. U.S. research has found that produced water, also called oilfield brine, contains elevated levels of salt, some heavy metals, radioactive isotopes and relatively small concentrations of oil and grease, up to 25 parts per million. Its release into marshes, even in small volumes, can quickly kill vegetation, creating “burned” areas that “may take years to revegetate,” according to research published by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in the early 1990s.
The Apache spill took place in an area rich with wetlands. The company said this week it had not hurt wildlife or reached the Zama River, although the Alberta government said it had affected tributaries. Water monitoring is ongoing.
Neither Apache nor the Alberta government initially disclosed the spill, which was only made public after someone reported it to a TV station late last week. The National Energy Board, by comparison, sent out a news release Tuesday after a spill of five to seven barrels of oil at an Imperial Oil Ltd. refinery in Sarnia, Ont.
Bob Curran, a spokesman with the Energy Resources Conservation Board, Alberta’s energy regulator, said there was no reason to make a broader public notification of the Apache spill.
“There were no real public impacts. There were some people that were kind of nearby and they were notified,” he said earlier this week.
He questioned the relevance of the spill’s size to its public importance.
“Volume isn’t always indicative of the severity of a spill,” he said. “You can have small volumes that get into a waterway that are much more problematic than larger volumes that are mostly contained on a lease site.”
Asked about the Apache spill, Jessica Potter, a spokeswoman for Alberta Environment and Sustainable Resource Development, said this week that “we know it has entered some of the water bodies. What we are working on is to delineate and determine just what potential impact there may have been.”
Apache had installed some drainage culverts, she said, to contain the spill.
Some 150 people are involved in the cleanup effort, Mr. Wyke said.
The duration of the spill – how long it was leaking before it was detected – has not been disclosed.