The following is an excerpt from an article penned by Teika Newton for the Lake of the Woods Area News magazine (July 2014), and is used here with the author’s permission.
Any potential breaches of the pipeline constitute significant and perhaps irreversible threats to the environment, most notably our lakes, rivers and streams. Energy East will cross 41 named rivers in Ontario, including in our watershed, the Winnipeg River and the Wabigoon River, in addition to numerous other small water crossings. Although TransCanada makes assurances that safety and integrity of the pipe will be paramount, in no human enterprise are there absolute guarantees in perpetuity. Whether through human error or natural catastrophe, accidents can and do happen.
In Northwestern Ontario, ours is a fluid environment. Our landscape is a network of waterways, connected by irregular land bridges. Water has provided the basis for transportation, commerce, and, most fundamentally, life, for people in this area since time immemorial.
A rupture in an oil pipeline anywhere within the watershed threatens the whole of the watershed, for water moves along the surface and underground, following small fissures in the ancient bedrock, as it makes its way toward Lake of the Woods or the Wabigoon, English or Winnipeg River systems. Every Energy East water crossing represents a further direct risk to the long-term health of the immediate aquatic system.
At present, there are no good scientific data to help us estimate the behaviours or impacts of a dilbit [diluted bitumen] spill in a boreal fresh water ecosystem. Limited research has been conducted for simulated marine environments through laboratory experiments done by the National Research Council, Environment Canada, and the Department of Fisheries and Oceans. In this study, researchers found that diluted bitumen of the sort that would be transported through the Energy East pipeline exhibits behaviours in marine environments that make it extremely difficult to clean up. At present, there are no “best practices” for managing dilbit spills, and methods typically used to contain conventional crude oil spills such as the use of chemical dispersants are not effective on denser, more viscous dilbit.
This confirms the real-world experiences of crews in Kalamazoo, MI, and Mayflower, AR, who continue to struggle to remediate vast areas affected by sizable spills resulting from pipeline ruptures in recent years. At Kalamazoo, even dredging the riverbed has proven not to be fully effective in removing sunken dilbit.
Dilbit becomes highly problematic in marine environments in part because it is characterized as an unresolved complex of hydrocarbon compounds, including butanes to decanes, benzene, toluene, ethylbenzene, xylene and sulfur. These compounds do not readily break down in nature.
Also, Canadian oil sands crude has a density just slightly lower than that of water. In theory, this means that it should float on the surface of water. However, studies have shown that when spilled in nature, through evaporation alone this oil can easily reach or surpass the density of water, and thus sink to the bottom. Furthermore, as soon as dilbit mixes with sediment in a turbulent water column, it immediately becomes much more dense than water and again, sinks to the bottom. While studies to date have applied only to marine, saltwater systems, given the experiences of Kalamazoo, we can infer that at least some of the same environmental concerns many translate to our region’s boreal fresh waters, but clearly, more research is sorely needed.
In the meantime, respect the precautionary principle: Let’s not mess with dilbit in our precious watershed, and jeopardize our $482 million regional tourism economy, our recreational outdoorsy lifestyles, and our life-giving drinking water by allowing Energy East to introduce oil to our watershed.