Last week I heard about a heavy oil pipeline breech that occurred along the North Saskatchewan River in Western Saskatchewan. This spill is not that large in comparison to others but is estimated about 250,000 liters, equal to about two and a half rail cars or seven B-train truck loads. The main problem with this spill is that it is close to the water intakes of several cities and towns downstream. Water had to be shut off for the cities of North Battleford and Prince Albert. This is a major disruption to businesses and life-styles of the people in these cities and smaller towns. It may be weeks before these water systems get back to normal.
|North Saskatchewan River Near Oil Spill Location After 6 days|
I drove out there to see for myself what it looked like. I stopped at three different places along the river, within a few miles of the leak. This is a slow paced, meandering river, about 200 to 300 meters wide and dotted with islands and gravel and sand bars. It is silt laden and at this time the river level has dropped from the higher levels of a week ago due to heavy rain and warm weather melting snow pack in the mountains. I could not see any evidence of an oil spill. The oily sheen on the water shown on television reports is not apparent to me now. If I did not know better I would not have believed that a heavy oil spill had happened just upstream. There are still many people working on the river with boats, booms and equipment of all sizes and shapes trying hard to recover as much oil as possible.I could not see any oil on the beach or smell any in the air. Husky oil is taking this spill very seriously.
|Oil Booms, Men and Equipment Working to Clean Up Oil Spill|
I don’t know the size of pipe that allowed the oil into the river or the pressure that the oil moves through it. I don’t know how far from the breech that a shut-off valve is located so whatever is in the pipe still has to drain through the break once the valve is shut off. You can imagine how much oil might be in a pipe that is 36” or so in diameter and several miles from a shut off valve. All of these stats will come out in the investigation into this incident.
|Abraham Lake in Winter|
The North Saskatchewan River begins its prairie meandering from the Eastern slopes of the Rocky Mountains, drip by drop from the Rocky Mountain Icefields and snow pack. It is fed by numerous tributaries as it flows through the foothills and then into Abraham Lake backed by the Bighorn Dam. From this dam the river continues its eastward trek through Rocky Mountain House, past Devon then through Edmonton. It is contained within a major river valley as it continues eastward into Saskatchewan and through North Battleford then through Prince Albert before joining with the South Saskatchewan River, about 1400 kilometres from its source. The combined rivers eventually flow into Tobin Lake and onwards to empty into Lake Winnipeg which empties into Hudson Bay through the Nelson River system.
The trials of this river system began over two hundred years ago with the fur trade, exploration and settlement by the British and Hudson Bay Company. The river systems that flow into Hudson Bay drain more than one third of Western Canada and were the main highways and exploration routes toward the riches of the new land. Fur was the hot commodity of the day especially beaver. Beaver were almost wiped out due to high demands of the European fashion trade. Beaver pelts as well as other furs such as wolf, lynx, and weasels were traded for beads, colourful cloth, steel knives and axes, as well as muskets and powder which quickly had the natives reliant upon these modern conveniences. Missionaries followed the fur trappers to isolated regions in their attempts to convert and educate native people to Christianity. Alcohol was added to the trade goods over time which did no good at all for the traditional way of life for the native tribes.
|Westhazel School 1912 to 1958|
About 150 years ago the first settlers surged across the broad prairie landscape after escaping Europe in search of free land and resources. Farmers turned over the rich and diverse prairie in hopes of growing wheat. Spectacular forests were laid flat and turned into lumber and railroad ties. As the railroad expanded westward it carried floods of people searching for a new way of life far from the ravages of crowded England and Europe. There was little thought given to the changing landscape. Within a few years Bison herds were totally wiped out to make way for cattle and fenced farmland. Less than a hundred years ago oil was discovered at Turner Valley in Southern Alberta and then after the Second World War it was discovered at Leduc, on the breaks of the North Saskatchewan River in central Alberta. Since then there has been a constant and determined race to find and extract as much oil and gas from the prairie and forested landscape of Alberta, Northern B.C. and Saskatchewan as possible. Once the oil and gas has been found, it has to be transported by truck, rail or pipeline to be refined and then distributed to end users. In Canada it would be almost impossible to find anyone who does not use oil products. Heat for our homes, fuel for our cars directly or through the use of plastics, paints, preservatives, clothing and almost anything else you can name. Oil products are also one of our main exports and tax bases which fuel our vibrant economies and consumeristic lifestyles.
|Rail versus Pipeline|
Forestry is another of the main industries which we depend upon for employment and taxes. Vast tracts of Boreal forest is harvested along the upper reaches of the North Saskatchewan River and its tributaries. There is an ever increasing demand from the forest from home builders and pulp and paper. Lumber, raw logs and pulp is exported around the world on the backs of trucks, rail and shipping. In order to supply these demands, roads are bulldozed into the wildlands and blocks of timber are cut down, dragged out then trucked to mills for manufacture. As more and more timber is harvested, companies expand into steeper and more rugged terrain. The more ground opened up, the more strain is put on the landscape, the creeks and rivers as well as the critters that live there.
|Foothills Cut blocks Planted to Singular Species Pine|
Harvested trees are replaced with planted trees but much of the rich natural diversity of the original forest takes years to be restored. In some cases, newly planted cut blocks are sprayed with herbicides to reduce grassy competition.
|Slash Pile Waste to be Burned|
Agriculture is another one of the main industries that feed our insatiable economy. Farms are getting larger as margins get smaller so there is tremendous incentive to produce as much as possible from every arable acre. Low areas are drained, bush land is cleared and any native prairie land is plowed under in the attempt to grow grain or feed livestock. Artificial fertilisers are spread in greater volumes and more herbicides are sprayed to kill any weeds that may compete with the growing crop. Pesticides and fungicides are sprayed as well to kill off any voracious predator of our canola, wheat, corn or peas.
|Agriculture and Oil Mixed Land Use|
In agriculture we have exchanged a very diverse mix of plant life for a singular crop which is great for the farmer but not always the best for our landscape. Pesticides reduce the good bugs as well as the bad ones. Honey bees are one of the good bugs that are harmed by pesticide spray.
|Sprayer Tracks into Wheat Field. No Weeds or Bugs Allowed|
Each of our main industries occurs on the drainage system of the North Saskatchewan River. Forestry occurs in the upper drainage region of the river. Many of the tributaries that drain into the main river contain large tracts of land that have been logged off. The loss of the mature forest causes rainfall to run off quicker, snow melt to happen faster and the land heats up more causing the small streams and creeks to warm up faster. Warm water holds less oxygen than colder water resulting in stress to bugs and fish living there. Extraction roads and creek crossings result in greater siltation of the small water courses with the faster runoff of rain and snow melt. More access to the land adds stress to wildlife trying to survive in the busier land. Caribou, for example, require old growth forest, are stressed by loss of suitable habitat to wander through while searching for unique food and stress competition from other ungulates and predators such as black bears, grizzly and wolves. Our government is now out in the forest shooting wolves from helicopters and setting poison baits in the hope of reducing predatory pressure upon dwindling caribou herds. They should be reducing resource development in caribou habitat and allowing forests to regrow before more land is opened to resource extractors.
All-terrain vehicles are now exploring the back country where they could never get to before. With more access roads being built, ATVs can easily expand their range. They cause noisy disruption and stress to wildlife that are always on high alert to the dangers humans present. ATVs are also one of the major causes of landscape degradation due to rutting, mudding, stream bed disruption, erosion and access in winter time for wolves to caribou and sheep habitat on snowmobile trails.
|ATV Rutting. These ruts are knee deep|
Oil and gas extraction occurring within the river drainage system require cut lines and roads to open access to miles of back country that was previously wilderness. Road and pipeline right-of-way’s reduce forest cover and increase traffic to sensitive wildland habitat. Erosion, access and stream bed destruction all add stress to the landscape including the river itself. Every year we hear about a pipeline that has spilled major quantities of raw oil into a muskeg, a river or onto the landscape somewhere. These spills are very difficult and expensive to clean up. There is no way to recover all the oil spilled into any of the watercourses. The spilled oil is extremely toxic to wildlife living in and around muskeg, lakes and rivers.
I cannot imagine how they would clean up such a spill in the winter time. It would be impossible to clean up under the ice and snow covered stream. We are not sure about how differently the oil reacts to icy cold water in comparison to the warmer water in mid-summer. As the oil slick moves downstream, it will continue to affect each watercourse it flows through. Codette Lake, Tobin Lake are both reservoirs that are created by dams on this river near the town of Nipiwan. Both lakes are lined by resorts and are great fishing destinations. As this oil slick continues downstream it will continue to impact and add to the cumulative stresses of the countryside, the people and wildlife that live in the region.
I have to ask myself how much more can the river take? What happens if a large spill happens upstream of Edmonton? This large city cannot shut off the water intake for very long before it becomes a major hardship to over one million inhabitants. Edmonton is threatened by possible spills from rail way or trucking accidents. It is threatened by pipeline breech or refinery accident. Every day, the river itself as well as the lakes it flows through are threatened and polluted by increased siltation and chemicals washed into it through storm drains. People who pour paints and chemicals or medicines and cooking grease into drains or who wash their cars on the driveway threaten the health of the river, one small drop at a time.
Farmers add tremendous chemical loads to the river through runoff from fertilised and sprayed fields. Fertiliser loads in the river add to increased algae levels in lakes it flows through or into. As the land heats up, so does the river and lake water temperature which promotes algae and weed growth which uses up valuable oxygen required for fish. Chemical pollutants flowing into the river also add to the toxicity of the river water requiring more cleaning before human usage.
The North Saskatchewan River contains about 10 species of fish including the rare Lake Sturgeon which some anglers are now catching with some regularity. They do have to be released but how much stress can they take? How much fish can we safely eat that are caught in the river?
Let us consider the cost of human exploitation to the land itself. What value do we put on pristine wilderness and plentiful wildlife? How valuable is it to us to be able to show our grandchildren a clean landscape where we can see a grizzly bear or a caribou? How can we rate or compare the value of our life to the life of the other creatures of the land or the health of the land itself?
|Wild Horses in Clear Cut. Can we not all live in harmony?|
Are corporate profits and stock holders share values really more important to the future long-term health of the earth? I know that we have to make a living but do we need to extract all of earth’s resources immediately to appease our insatiable money greed? Can we not slow down and rebuild or restore the habitat that we are damaging before we move on to the next project? How many companies do we see use the land, remove the resource then claim bankruptcy leaving their environmental damages in their wake? It seems that they are playing a game and never had any intention of reclaiming their damages. There are now thousands of abandoned well sites and mines scattered across Western and Northern Canada that nobody will clean up until the government may do some. Is the North Saskatchewan River, or any other river, going to be able to handle the increased requirements on it to feed our growing population as we pave over more pristine forest and farmland? I fear for its future.
|North Saskatchewan River Bridge at Ft. Saskatchewan|
What is the value of clean water and land?