Greenpeace released the pictures Friday of a pond adjacent to the Rainbow pipeline leak in northern Alberta that was detected April 29, 2011. It spilled 4.5 million litres of oil onto the landscape, closed a school in the nearby community of Little Buffalo and created health problems there as well.
At almost the same time as the photos were released, the provincial government announced a review of pipeline safety.
The photos, which Greenpeace says were taken last week, appear to show large globs of oil fouling vegetation and an oily sheen on the water. Deer and wolf tracks were spotted around the bank of the fouled pond.
"It had a really pungent smell and was hard to be around," said Melina Laboucan-Massimo, who works with Greenpeace and is a member of the local aboriginal band. "People who have hunted this area for generations no longer go there."
Samples of oil and water said to be from the site smelled sharply of oil and burned rubber. Greenpeace has yet to test the samples to determine what they contain.
The pond was on the south side of the pipeline corridor. Laboucan-Massimo said land on the north side appeared to be in better shape and was showing signs of recovery.
Pipeline owner Plains Midstream Canada says on its website that remediation on the site was completed last December.
"Plains remains committed to completing the comprehensive site cleanup and will ensure the land is properly restored to meet all applicable environmental standards," it says.
A company spokesman was not available to comment on the state of the cleanup.
Alberta Environment spokeswoman Jessica Potter said the government hasn't yet given its final approval to the Rainbow cleanup, adding the company remains responsible for the site.
"They have to prove to us the site's cleaned up and meets our standards," she said.
Inspectors will visit the site before any final approvals are given, said Potter. Such approvals for other spills have taken as long as three years.
While there are no fixed timelines for remediation, Potter said there's an "expectation" the work gets done efficiently.
"If we feel a company is not cleaning up, we will issue an enforcement order," she said.
An inspector is slated to visit the site next week, Potter said.
The Energy Resources Conservation Board — Alberta's energy regulator — allowed Plains to reopen the 44-year-old pipeline last August.
Greenpeace spokesman Mike Hudema said the state of the pond, given the company's statements, raises questions about the Alberta government's oversight on environmental cleanup.
"The province should be overseeing these cleanup efforts, should be ensuring the cleanup is timely, should be ensuring that adequate cleanup is done, and that all claims by the company as to where the cleanup process is are truthful," he said.
Also Friday, Alberta Energy Minister Ken Hughes announced a review of pipeline safety. He said in Calgary that the review would be led by the Energy Resources Conservation Board and be conducted by an independent agency. The review is to look at how pipeline integrity is managed, how safety of pipes crossing water is ensured and how responses to pipeline malfunctions are handled.
The review is expected to take months.
Hudema scoffed at a review led by an agency that he said is "part of the problem.
"It makes no sense to me to have one of the bodies that is potentially the problem for Alberta's pipeline problems to investigate itself," he said.
Hudema said the review should be led either by a scientific panel or the provincial auditor general, as was done in Saskatchewan.
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