Darcy Henton / Montreal Gazette & The Calgary Herald – 2011-05-08 01:05:41
(May 6, 2011) — Aboriginal leaders and opposition critics are slamming the response of Alberta agencies to the province’s largest oil spill in nearly four decades.
Residents of nearby First Nations communities say they didn’t get information soon enough and the government response to their complaints of widespread illness has been “disappointing.”
NDP environment critic Rachel Notley is calling for an investigation.
“When a community is saying: ‘My kids are coughing, my eyes are red, people are dizzy and have headaches,’ they shouldn’t have to wait six days for someone to respond to that — election or no election,” she said, referring to Monday’s federal vote.
“Either we have a profound inability to deal with any kind of environmental or public health emergency in this province or the concerns about the information coming out before the election had some impact,” said Notley.
Woodland Cree Chief William Whitehead said he was disappointed with the lack of information released about the spill that was discovered Friday on his trapline.
“It seems they don’t want to give out information,” he said. “That’s one of my concerns.”
Brian Alexander, principal of Little Buffalo School on the nearby Lubicon Cree First Nation, said children and staff in the school began to experience headaches, nausea and dizziness on Friday, but it wasn’t until three days later that he found out by chance there was a massive oil spill in the area. He said he initially thought the odour was caused by a propane leak in the building, but sending the students outside didn’t help.
He took offence to claims by the Energy Resources Conservation Board (ERCB) that the hydrocarbons released by the spill are not a health risk and not the cause of the illness at his school.
“Nobody is taking ownership,” Alexander said. “No one is talking to us and there are no plans to evacuate us. We’re sitting here waiting for answers.”
Environment Minister Rob Renner said Wednesday his ministry was sending a mobile air monitoring unit to the area and Alberta health was also responding, but noted there is a difference between health concerns and noxious odours.
“Just because there is an odour doesn’t necessarily imply there are health-related issues,” he said.
Renner said he was aware the school had been closed indefinitely as a precautionary measure, “but we had not advised or ordered the school closed.”
ERCB spokesman Davis Sheremata said industry air monitoring at the school has not picked up hydrocarbons, and if there is something making the children sick, it is not an oil spill 30 kilometres away.
“Our staff are certain it is not the leak that is causing this,” he said. “I concede there is a concern, but we don’t believe it’s the leak.”
Alexander said he is “just a school principal” and his only concern is the health and safety of students and staff, but he is adamant the situation is serious.
“The people have to leave. They can’t stay here. The kids are getting very sick and one teacher almost passed out.”
He said whoever is saying the odour is not a health concern “is trying to cover up something.”
“Whoever is saying that really doesn’t care what is going on,” he said. “They don’t care about people’s well-being.”
Melina Laboucan-Massimo, a Lubicon Cree and Greenpeace activist, criticized Renner’s comments.
“It is easy for him to say that when he is not breathing the fumes,” she said. “It is really alarming for the community members and my family to not know what is happening and to be fearful for their safety and their health.”
Liberal critic Laurie Blakeman says Albertans are losing trust in the Conservative government’s willingness to address complaints related to oilpatch activity.
“This government’s first reaction is not action, but to deny, delay and trivialize,” she said.
Sheremata said the company has an obligation to notify anyone who could be affected by the spill.
“We’ll also be looking at our own internal process to see if we should have brought people into the loop more quickly as well,” he said.
Sheremata said the line was last inspected with an ultrasound device in 2009 and has been inspected six times since 2005.
The break in the 770-kilometre Rainbow Pipeline, in forest northeast of Peace River, has leaked nearly 4.5 million litres of crude oil since Friday.
The owner, Plains Midstream Canada, has built two roads into the site to bring in 100 workers and 46 pieces of heavy equipment to contain the spill and mop up the site.
The company says on its website the crude is contained in an area 800 metres long by 50 metres wide.
The cause of the spill hasn’t been determined, but Sheremata said the crack in the buried line was not caused by vandalism or sabotage.
Sheremata couldn’t say how long it will take to clean up the spill, but Chief Whitehead said he was advised it could take five months.
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