By Laura Keil
Several historic leaks discovered along the Trans Mountain pipeline in 2021 are relatively small, say experts. But ecologists say even small amounts of oil can harm fish habitat if they make their way into streams.
One of the contaminated sites, within 30m of a water body, is just outside the town of Jasper in Jasper National Park on the inactive TMPL 24″ Mainline. In a Canada Energy Regulator report, the volume of contaminated soil is estimated at 100 cubic metres. The report says the company removed some of the contaminated soil, but when they tested again, contamination remained. The report lists Petroleum Hydrocarbons (PHC), Polycyclic Aromatic Hydrocarbons (PAH) and Benzene, Toluene, Ethylbenzene, Xylenes (BTEX) as the contaminants.
Preston Sorenson, a soil science researcher at the University of Saskatchewan who has worked on environmental assessment projects in Jasper National Park in the past, says the Polycyclic Aromatic Hydrocarbons (PAH) and BTEX are of special concern when it comes to the environment and risk to human health, since they are known carcinogens.
He says the contamination is relatively small compared to other oil spills in Canada, where spills can be as large as 60,000 cubic metres. But the fact it’s in a park and close to a wetland means it’s still a concern.
He says there are many ways to deal with contaminated soil and ways to prevent it from spreading to water. Often companies will excavate the contaminated soil, but this obviously has its own impact on the environment, he says, so sometimes they will leave some of the contaminated soil in place.
“They might have to do what’s called a risk assessment to determine, for instance, where’s the groundwater? How long would it take to reach the groundwater? What’s the natural attenuation rate? So what’s the rate at which it binds and breaks down in the soil? So they might conclude that okay, well, the actual risk to anything is really small. And so that’s better than digging it up.”
He says heavier fuels don’t spread anywhere near as fast as, say, gasoline or refined fuels.
“It doesn’t break down very fast, naturally, but it also doesn’t move fast.”
Sometimes companies will pump up groundwater for a certain period of time so the water doesn’t reach a flowing stream or contaminate drinking water.
“There’s a variety of tools and approaches they could take,” Sorenson said. “But they all have uncertainty and they cost money.”
Two other contaminated sites along the Trans Mountain pipeline were noted between Edmonton and Vancouver in 2021, one near Hinton along the same inactive TMPL 24″ Mainline (est. 100 cubic metres), and another at a facility in Kamloops, (est. 10 cubic metres).
Parks Canada says they were advised by Trans Mountain Pipelines, through the Canada Energy Regulator, that contamination was located about 7.5 kilometres west of the Jasper townsite.
“The soil contamination finding is in the same location as a pipeline spill back in the 1960s in Jasper National Park,” Parks Canada told the Goat. “It is believed that the existing contamination stems from that event, and that new standards in cleanup and monitoring have brought it to light.”
Parks Canada says they are awaiting a remediation plan from Trans Mountain on recommended next steps for how to best to proceed. Parks Canada staff have confirmed that the contamination is limited to the soil.
The Goat asked Trans Mountain how much contamination remains at each site, which contaminants are still present, whether there are signs the contamination entered the water in Jasper, how the leaks occurred and over what time period, among other questions.
Trans Mountain did not respond to our questions and instead issued the following statements:
“Occasionally, operations and maintenance activities encounter historical contamination as a result of former practices. While a particular practice would have been acceptable in its day, environmental practices and requirements have improved.”
A spokesperson said if they encounter historical contamination, Trans Mountain manages the site in accordance with the requirements of the current Canada Energy Regulator (CER) Remediation Process Guide. The process, from discovery through clean-up and remediation, is regulated by the CER.
“During soil removal activities, if contamination is suspected, Trans Mountain will enact the Contamination Discovery Contingency Plan which is part of the approved Environmental Protection Plan. Wastes will be handled in accordance with the Waste Management Plan for Trans Mountain.”
In the CER report, filed May 5th 2021, the company said an environmental site assessment will be completed “to delineate contaminated soil and confirm groundwater conditions.” They also said they will create a remedial action plan or risk management plan to address remaining contamination.
The company did not say which contaminants remain or whether there was contamination of the nearby waterbody.
According to the CER website, The Trans Mountain Pipeline has reported a total of 76 contaminated sites since 2011 when the first Remediation Process Guide was first published. There have been 25 contaminated sites reported since August 2018.
But pipeline spill clean-up expert Merv Fingas says pipelines are still the safest way to transport oil long distances.”
“They are orders of magnitude safer than going by rail, for example.”
Fingas has written a textbook on oil spill clean-up and he says the number and quantities of spills have decreased over the past decade.
He said the small leaks are usually not detected because they fall under the threshold. He says newer leak-detection systems rely on differences in pressure to detect leaks by “processing the pulse.”
“If they’re small, let’s say over a few parts per million, it’s outside of the threshold,” Fingas said. He said it would be similar in other situations like gas station tanks, which he says are also a common source of contamination.
But historic contamination can persist in the environment if not discovered. And ecologists say even small amounts of oil can harm fish habitat. Two researchers from Guelph University found that even small amounts of diluted bitumen can affect salmon development and impair their ability to swim. A two-year study will determine which life stages of the salmon are most vulnerable to diluted bitumen, whether higher temperatures in contaminated water alter egg development and whether the fishes’ sense of smell, which they use to locate their natal streams, is impaired by exposure to the substance.
Peter Hodson, professor emeritus at Queen’s University, says freshwater systems are just as much at risk as marine ones when it comes to oil spills.
“The big emphasis in Canada on oil spill control and cleanup seems to be on marine systems. But in terms of the numbers of spills and the potential impacts, I think freshwater deserves a lot more attention, because the oil is in much more confined systems and less likely to dilute and spread out and therefore much more likely to cause a problem.”
Hodson co-authored a 2015 study on the behaviour and environmental impact of oil spilled in aqueous environments.
“The oil can be fresh even though it’s been there a long time,” he says. If ground water hasn’t diluted the oil, it can remain like “virgin oil” for many years, he says.
Looking at the type of contaminants, he guesses the Jasper spill was crude oil. But he brings up the old adage that “it’s the dose that makes the poison.”
“The BTEX, they can be acutely lethal, because they’re readily taken up by aquatic species. And the exposure could be great enough to cause acute lethality. But again, it depends very much on how much is getting in the river. And unless there’s an oil slick, like, visible sheen or an odour, then it’s really hard to say whether or not it’s getting in there to cause an issue.”
The Goat visited the approximate area of the contamination, but was unable to ascertain the exact location due to inexact GPS coordinates provided in the report.
Hodson says the CER report doesn’t provide detail about how the spill occurred or what risk it might pose to the environment, and that itself is a story.
“Here’s something that may be important but we don’t know anything,” he remarks. “There’s so many questions about what might affect what state it’s in, where it might go, and what might be affected by it.”
He says oil contamination can actually migrate from one water body to another through groundwater and silt, ultimately affecting fish eggs, which could lead to deformities and a decline in fish populations—even an oil taste in fish eaten by humans.
“I think the exercise that Trans Mountain pipeline is going through right now is to investigate all our pipelines to make sure they’re in good enough shape that they can be reactivated and pump more oil. And if they’re discovering historic spills that they weren’t aware of, then it suggests that the pipeline is not in as good condition as they would like.”
He says when the company sees a big drop in pressure on their monitoring systems, they can push the panic button and shut down the pipeline .
“But the difficulty is if you have a slow leak, the pressure drop is never big enough to detect. And so you can lose a lot of oil over a period of months or years and go into the ground and nobody’s going to know. And that’s conceivably what’s happened in this particular situation. So, minor leaks are not easily detected, but they could have just as big an effect.”