EDMONTON - The Canadian arm of a U.S.-based pipeline company is facing environmental charges related to a massive leak that spilled millions of litres of oil into wetlands and shut down a school in northwestern Alberta.
Plains Midstream Canada faces three counts under the provincial Environmental Protection and Enhancement Act, which allows for maximum fines of $500,000.
The April 2011 breach, about 95 kilometres northeast of Peace River, released 4.5 million litres of oil and was blamed for powerful smells in the community of Little Buffalo that residents said caused headaches and stomach problems and kept schoolchildren at home for days.
It was Alberta's largest leak in 36 years.
The charges Friday came days before Greenpeace had planned to release results of its extensive examination of hundreds of pages of documents into how the provincial energy regulator and the government handled the Plains leak.
Greenpeace spokesman Keith Stewart said the main conclusions — that the Alberta government and the Energy Resources Conservation Board have grown too cosy with industry — remain valid.
"Our concerns with the systemic issues remain," he said.
Plains Midstream Canada was harshly criticized in an investigation report released last February by the energy conservation board that said Plains did a poor job assessing the risks associated with the pipeline, failed to maintain it properly and didn't have an sufficient response plan in case of problems. The board added that earlier repairs probably contributed to the leak and it faulted the company for having inadequately trained staff and ineffective supervision.
"Plains Midstream Canada has received and is now evaluating the charges arising out of this matter," the company said in a release Friday. "We will be reviewing them with our counsel and the Crown, and will respond formally with our position in due course."
The Greenpeace report outlines examples which it says demonstrates how officials were more concerned with protecting the image of a besieged industry than protecting the public.
It points out the board's own reviewers recommended on Sept. 13, 2011, that a public inquiry into the spill be held — a recommendation that was squelched by the board's chief operating officer three weeks later.
The environmental group also suggests that the board misrepresented air-quality data from the Little Buffalo school, quoting a board statement that "based on the current data, there is no evidence that the air quality poses risk of long-term health impact at this time."
In fact, the air quality report said the monitoring station was upwind of the spill at the time it took its readings.
"Thus, we are unable at this time using the data collected ... May 5 to infer the impact of the oil spill on air quality at the school," says the report.
Greenpeace also pointed out contradictions between the board's report and what Energy Minister Ken Hughes was told privately. While the board concluded "contaminated water was not migrating off site," a May 6, 2011, briefing note to Hughes said "there are some exceedances of hydrocarbons downstream from the wetlands."
Finally, Greenpeace quotes a May 31, 2011, briefing note to then-premier Ed Stelmach that the group says contradicts assurances given to the public: "Full restoration of the localized area is unlikely," the briefing note says.
Board spokesman Bob Curran responded that administration decided that an investigation was a better way to handle the situation than an inquiry. He said the board's report and supporting documentation is available online.
Accusations the board has been "captured" by industry aren't new, Curran said.
He pointed out that in addition to the board's strongly worded investigation report, the Plains Midstream line was shut down for the better part of four months — an action the board estimates cost the company and its customers about $850 million.
"I don't think a captive regulator would do that," Curran said. "Enforcement is a serious thing in Alberta and companies take it seriously."
Energy Minister Ken Hughes likewise rejected the Greenpeace charges.
"The expectation from the government of Alberta has been and continues to be that the province’s regulator works on behalf of all Albertans to ensure responsible energy development and a clean and healthy environment," he said in an email. "I have every confidence that this will continue under the leadership of Alberta’s new single regulator."
Stewart said there are enough red flags about how the Plains Midstream leak was handled to raise concerns about that new regulator, which comes into effect this summer and will be headed by Gerry Protti, a former energy executive and lobbyist who was the industry's representative in designing the new approach.
The energy board is investigating a second pipeline spill involving Plains Midstream. Last June's breach leaked up to 475,000 litres of oil into the Red Deer River near Sundre in central Alberta.
A review of pipeline safety called by Hughes last summer has not been publicly released. Nor have plans for public consultation that Hughes promised in November.
Previous charges against energy companies have typically been settled through a guilty plea and a corporate donation to an environmental project.
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