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Alberta's Underground Tar Sands 'Oil Blowout' Industry and Government Don't Want You to Know About

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"We don't know what the hell is going on under the ground".

That's what Crystal Lameman, a member of the Beaver Lake Cree Nation told me this morning. On June 27, an oil spill occurred at Canadian Natural Resources Limited's (CNRL) Primrose operations 75km east of Lac la Biche. The spill happened on the Cold Lake Air Weapons Range (CLAWR), located in a region The Royal Canadian Airforce calls "the inhospitable wilds of northern Alberta and Saskatchewan." This 'inhospitable' region happens to be in her community's traditional hunting territory where her family traditionally hunted and trapped and where her elders are buried.

DeSmog.ca reported a release of bitumen emulsion, a mixture of heavy tar sands crude and water from in-situ (in ground) oil production.

Lameman told me she only heard about the spill from the press release from the Alberta Energy Regulator (AER). "It was disheartening to open my Facebook and see a link showing me the spill in our traditional hunting territory -- that I had to get the information from an outside source as opposed to the information coming directly to the community." The press release is sparse on details, but confirmed that neither the company nor the government are certain of the volume of emulsion spilled, that the affected area is near Pad 22 but off lease, and has impacted a nearby slough. According to the release, the company has begun clean-up operations. But Lameman heard from source on site that the damage of the spill it is much worse than the company, government or media are reporting.

"I was being told, there's wildlife still drinking from the water." She was also told that the 'slough' in question was actually a lake, but the lake has receded so much that industry and government are calling the lake a slough to minimize the perception of the spill. "That concerned me," she says, "and it made me want to go out there and survey the damage." And so Lameman decided it was time to find some answers. We set off to the Cold Lake Air Weapons Range, about 45 minutes east of her community.

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The Journey
We pulled up to the security gate of a military base. Though I'd heard it was a weapons range, it still surprised me of the high security and tar sands operations right on the base. Lameman was immediately denied entry and told that she needed to seek permission from an Aboriginal Liaison officer to enter the grounds, on her own traditional territory.

"I was told later that I won't be allowed in either way," Crystal tells me. "These are just the channels I have to go through. We pulled away and I just felt this sense of depression. After all this time we are still having to ask permission to utilize our land. How we walk on the land - we're still being told that. Where we can and can't go."

While regulatory bodies like the ERCB, AER, Fish and Wildlife and the federal government are monitoring, surveying, testing, Crystal confesses, "It's scary that they're doing whatever they can to deny us access. It makes me wonder, what's happening to those beings who can't talk for themselves? How bad is it? What is it? I don't feel good about it."

Unfortunately, this isn't the first time the Beaver Lake Cree have been denied access to their own traditional territory. In 2008, they launched a lawsuit claiming that the cumulative effects of tar sands development interfere with their constitutionally-protected treaty rights to hunt, trap and fish. The nation is fighting for access to the CLAWR. Recently, a decision of the Alberta Court of Appeal rejected Canada and Alberta's attempts to have the case thrown out.

Legal counsel for BLCN, Drew Mildon, noted: "First Nations have the strongest environmental law tools at their disposal in Canada." He went on to add that "this 'emulsion' spill is a perfect example of local impacts of the tar sands; unfortunately, the rest of us must rely on small, poverty-stricken First Nations to take courageous stands to stem the global impacts that are the debt we will pay for further tar sands development."

"Black Puddles"
According to Lameman's source, the damage was described to her as "black puddles" or "black spots" coming up in different areas. An employee on site confirmed that the tar sands emulsion seeping from the ground is not a pipeline spill. What's more, industry and government do not even know what the spill is. They also know there's a lot of oil seeping, and they don't know what it's coming from.

"The ground seepage is off-lease," says Lameman. "And the fact that they're scrambling, trying to figure out what happened, and trying to keep us out of there as much as they can validates the information I was given that this spill is worse than what they're telling us."

According to information obtained from an employee, the contaminated lake in question is likely near Burnt Lake, possibly at Ward Lake.

Whither CSS?
CNRL's Primrose site uses a kind of tar sands extraction called Cyclic Steam Stimulation, or CSS.

According to CNRL's website CSS is a three stage thermal recovery method where steam is first injected into the well at temperatures over 300°C and pressures of 10-12 Mpa (1450-1740 psi). This heats the bitumen in the reservoir, reducing the viscosity so that it can flow. The steam is then left to
'soak' before production begins for several weeks, mobilizing cold bitumen, and then the flow on the injection well is reversed, producing oil through the same injection well bore.

The CSS process is only able to typically recover approximately 20% of the oil in the ground.

CSS as a process is relatively new, having been developed by Shell by accident in Venezuela after one of its steam injectors blew out. The process is becoming more common in the San Joaquin Valley of California, the Lake Maracaibo area of Venezuela, and in the tar sands.

According to ESG Solutions, a microseismic monitoring company that monitors oil and gas development, the CSS process is:

"environmentally sensitive and many risks exist ... Well casings are subject to severe tensile stresses due to the high temperature, high pressure nature of the CSS process. These stresses have the potential to result in mechanical failures such as cement cracks or casing shear leading to well downtime, damaging spills or hazardous blowouts. Shear stresses also develop during the dilation of the reservoir during the steam injection, potentially causing the incursion of fluids into the overlying shales and aquifers above the caprock and causing environmental contamination and costly clean up and regulatory penalties."

Of CSS, Lameman says: "This is a whole new kind of oil mess that no one's really ever heard of in terms of tar sands production. Everyone's heard of pipeline spills and open pit mining. But i don't think the public has been told of the dangers of CSS."

Mining on an active military testing site?
The apparent dangers of CSS and the fact that seismic monitoring is needed to oversee the process are heightened when you consider that CNRL's Primrose facility operates on an active weapons testing facility.

The Cold Lake Air Weapons Range construction began in 1952 and was chosen by the Royal Canadian Air Force to be the country's premier air weapons training base. The base land in Alberta and Saskatchewan covers an area of 11,700 square kilometres. While the federal government worked out an agreement with other First Nations who were systematically pushed out of the area, Lameman's ancestors were banned without consultation or compensation.

CLAWR is said to be the "northern equivalent" of the United States Air Force's Nellis Air Force Range. It hosts over 640 actual targets and 100 realistic target complexes, including 7 simulated aerodromes with runways, tarmac, aircraft, dispersal areas and buildings, as well as mechanized military equipment such as tanks, simulated radar and missile launching sites, mock industrial sites, and command and control centres.

According to the Cold Lake Air Weapons Range website, "the Air Force conducts live fire training exercises on the CLAWR" and it appears that live fire operations are taking place this week.

In addition to CNRL, Nexen, Husky Energy, Enbridge, Interpipe and Cenovus operate on the CLAWR.

Range activities officer at the CLAWR, Dick Brakele, says "to mix an active oil industry and an active weapons range where weapons are dropped takes a lot of imagination sometimes to ensure that the needs of both are met." Imagination is one way to look at it.

I met up with Naomi Klein who was also reporting in the area. She told me: "Canadians should be shocked that our government is dropping test bombs in the same geographic area as massive tar sands operations. This is already the most dangerous form of fossil fuel extraction on the planet from an ecological perspective. Combining that mining with weapons testing - no matter how careful the players claim to be -- is so reckless it verges on the surreal."

"This is something that everybody needs to know about"
Lameman still has a lot of questions she needs answered. To the oil companies and government she asks, "What is the magnitude of this spill? What is it? How much of the water has been affected? Did you stop it yet?"

For now, she has few answers. But the single mother of two isn't going to give up.

"This is something that everybody needs to know about because though it happens to fall within our traditional hunting territory, there's just as many non-native people as Indigenous people in this area. All of the water systems are connected. If you drink water, this is about you."

Emma Pullman is writing stories from impacted communities on the front lines of the tar sands in the lead up to the 4th Annual Healing Walk, a spiritual gathering and 14km walk to pray for the healing of the land and people at the front lines of tar sands expansion. The Healing Walk is July 5-6, 2013 in Fort McMurray, Alberta. You can follow her work VancouverObserver.com and on Rabble.ca.