Last April, 100,000 litres of crude oil and produced water spilled somewhere in Northeast British Columbia.
Several months later, another 400,000 litres of produced water — a salty byproduct of the fracking process that contains trace amounts of hydrogen sulfide and crude oil — poured into the environment in the Peace Region.
As oilfield spills in the Peace Region go, the two were some of the largest in 2014. They were among the several thousand spills listed in a database obtained by Alaska Highway News through a Freedom of Information request.
Solid, liquid or gas, 3,786 dangerous goods spills were reported in B.C. in 2014 — an average of 10 a day.
They range in size and environmental impact, from the Mount Polley mine disaster to a small spill of deep fryer oil.
The quality of data provided also varies widely. Only the amount and substance are known in the two oilfield spills. The database does not list those responsible, where it happened, or how it was cleaned up. Alaska Highway News requested additional information about the two spills from the Ministry of Environment, but a spokesperson said they could not release the full reports for privacy reasons.
Some say the data raises questions about how dangerous goods spills are handled in British Columbia.
For B.C. NDP environment critic Spencer Chandra Herbet, the number of spills was "concerning."
"It looks like in half the cases the government didn't know how much pollution was dumped," he told Alaska Highway News. "In a quarter of cases they didn't know how the spill occurred. In many ways, there are so many spills the ministry can't respond."
In some cases, the shortage of information is understandable. Whenever someone witnesses a spill, it's reported to the province in a Dangerous Goods Incident Report (DGIRs). Those reports are rough drafts. In a statement, a ministry spokesperson noted that the information in a DGIR can be "inaccurate or evolve over time," since the facts on the ground haven't always been established. Some reports simply inform the province of the potential for a spill, meaning some of the DGIRs are false alarms — though it is not clear how many.
While there are gaps in the data, it does give a rough idea of where the spill happened, along with the cause and a general description of how it impacted the environment.
The province's population centres, the Lower Mainland and Vancouver Island, accounted for more than half of the total spills, with around 30 and 23 per cent of all incidents, respectively. The Peace finished third with 552 spills, around 14 per cent of the total — perhaps a reflection of the region's outsize economic importance.
In almost half the incidents, a spill impacted water — either the ocean (978 spills), lakes and rivers (788) or groundwater (six). The majority of spills (1,072) impacted land, while in 438 cases the environment at risk was either unknown or not listed.
Some of the incidents raise eyebrows: for example, a July 25 spill in the Lower Mainland of 485-kilograms of "meth lab waste" (at least two other spills of drug lab material are listed). On 21 files, the cause of the spill is listed as "vandalism/terrorism." One such case in the Peace resulted in a 1,600 litre methanol spill. Two files involved pipelines, though neither appeared to have resulted is a large spill. Eighteen files dealt with either the smell or presence of sour gas, a toxic substance containing hydrogen sulfide. Also listed are:
• The largest spill last year: the Mount Polley mine breach, which dumped 14.5 billion litres of tailings water into nearby lakes and streams.
• An Oct. 24 incident in the Peace that killed seven birds. No further details are listed.
• A March 4 spill of 30,000 kilograms of jet fuel in Sidney.
• A Dec. 18 spill of pig manure in Salmon Arm.
• An unauthorized release of water from a residential swimming pool.
• A burning CN locomotive outside Avola.
• A Jan. 9 spill of carpet cleaning water in the Lower Mainland.
• Fuel drums illegally abandoned somewhere in the Peace. The report lists the number of barrels as "LOTS."
• A Feb. 24 derailment near Prince George that resulted in a 700,000 kilogram coal spill.
For Chandra Herbert, the environment critic, all this raises questions about whether the government's system for responding to spills is good enough.
According to at least one internal document Chandra Herbert provided to Alaska Highway News, there are basic worries about the province's ability to deal with spills. The March 2014 email between two Ministry of Environment directors underlines some of the problems.
"We could point to hundreds of spills on an annual basis where gaps occurred or improvements are needed," ministry director Graham Knox wrote. "Compiling such a report would involve significant staff resources, which we currently do not have."
He pointed to times when systems for spill reporting, responder training, data collection, habitat restoration and public compensation have broken down, calling them "a very small sampling of existing gaps or deficiencies."
"Right now, you've got a bit of a slapdash ability to respond, with large gaping holes," Chandra Herbert said. "One is that we're not really enforcing our environmental laws to the degree we should."
As for the oilfield's contribution to overall spills in B.C., the picture is murky. As a sector, oil and gas ranked ninth for spills, behind commercial, government, industrial, transportation, mining and residential spills.
The sector was unknown or not listed in 1,205 cases — or about one-third of all instances.
Of the 552 spills in the Peace, only 115 listed a sector, meaning there are large holes in the regional data. Of those, only 90 were listed as oilfield spills. However, the majority of Peace Region incidents that do not list a sector appear to be related to oil and gas.
Larry Neufeld, an environmental consultant based in Dawson Creek, has seen hundreds of spills in the oilpatch. He's also seen how regulation has made the worst spills less bad.
"In the days when my father worked in the oil industry, the stories that you heard, the messes I cleaned up early in my career, those don't exist anymore," he said. "I'm not trying to sell anything, this is my honest opinion from having done this for 21 years. My family lives here, and my kids live here, so I'm very grateful that things have changed."
There are a number of reasons why spills happen. Equipment failures were responsible for 30 per cent of all spills in 2014, while the cause of a spill was unknown or unlisted in 37 per cent of cases. Around nine per cent of all incidents were chalked up as human error, while around seven per cent were intentional but unauthorized spills.
Neufeld's company, Oakridge Environmental Engineering, responds to between 150 and 200 incidents a year, most of them oil and gas. That typically begins with a call from an oil company's environmental coordinator. By the time one of Neufeld's employees gets to a spill, some containment work will usually have begun. They would then take over coordination of the response and cleanup, which is done by either the oil company or a contractor.
He said the environmental impact of a large produced water spill varies.
"If it's into a ditch line and there's a water body nearby, that would be the highest risk," he said. "Produced water is very hard to separate from fresh water."
Overall, hazardous spills are becoming more frequent in B.C.
The total number of spills in 2010 was 2,615, according to a report from Emergency Management B.C., the lead agency on many spills. In 2013, that number had grown to 2,965. As the province's population and economy grows, that upward trend seems set to continue.
Among those calling for action on the file is the Union of British Columbia Municipalities. In 2013, amid debate over heavy oil pipelines from Alberta and calls for "world-leading" spill preparedness, the local government group laid out a wish list for improvements to land-based spill response.
That list included the creation of a regional spill response authority, as well as industry funds to pay for cleanup and ecosystem restoration.
"Most of our communities are faced with some sort of transportation of oil or other goods that could be dangerous to both the environment and local people," said UBCM President Sav Dhaliwal. "We wanted to make sure...that there's an emergency response strategy for responding to those types of accidents."
Chandra Herbert said the provincial government should have a more active role in spill response. He added that the number of spills in the province far outstripped fines and enforcement orders.
"There are all these spills, in some cases very small, so you've got to be reasonable [with fines]," he said. "But in some cases, they were very large and unknown. How do you enforce the law if you don't know who did it, or how much spilled? In some cases they don't even know where exactly the spill was, because [there aren't] the boots on the ground to make that determination."
A previous version of this article stated "Alaska Highway News requested additional information about the two spills from the Ministry of Environment, but a spokesperson said they could not release the full reports for privacy reasons."
The Oil and Gas Commission has since released details on the two spills.
The first spill "was a Pengrowth pipeline spill that occurred in the Elm Field Approximately 100 km north of Fort St. John. Cleanup was completed in summer 2014. The pipeline has been abandoned."
The second, of 400,000 litres of produced water, "was a Crew Energy drilling kick that occurred in the Septimus Field approximately 50 km south of Fort St. John that did not result in a spill."
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