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After the Saskatchewan oil spill, should we restrict water or oil?

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As fires rage across California and floods displace tens of thousands in China, communities in Saskatchewan have become the latest sacrifice zones of the oil economy. After a Husky Energy pipeline spilled a quarter of a million litres of oil into the North Saskatchewan river on July 21, North Battleford and Prince Albert have shut down their water intake from the river, introduced water restrictions and begun relying on small reservoirs.

As North Battleford city director of operations Stewart Schafer explained the day after the spill, "We have about three days and then we have to start up the other plant. By that time we are hoping that whatever contaminants hit the river are flushed down."

But rivers are not toilets, taking waste out of sight and out of mind; they are the veins of the earth, connecting communities and circulating the water on which we depend. And unfortunately the contaminants did flow downstream, causing Prince Albert to shut down its water intake. People living in other nearby communities -- including Melfort, Beatty, Kinistina, Weldon and Star City -- are also being asked to limit their water use. 

The Financial Post lamented the impact of the spill on "overshadowing earnings results that highlighted the company's improving balance sheet and operating performance...including its ramp-up of the Sunrise oilsands project after wildfires in Fort McMurray forced the company to shut down production." So after one community lost its forest and was forced to evacuate by fires fanned by global warming, another has lost the connection to its river and is forced by an oil spill to restrict its water use.

But Husky Oil is not complaining: "This is a milestone moment for the Company…We are now a highly resilient business better positioned to generate free cash flow," the company said in announcing its second quarter results the day after the spill. This comes after the company's spill of job losses for 500 workers this year and 1,400 last year.

Oil spills, water restrictions

Husky Oil is minimizing the importance of the spill, and in one sense they are right: there's nothing unusual about a pipeline spill. According to SaskOil,

"If exactly this oil spill had happened elsewhere on land, or into a less significant source of drinking water, it would go unnoticed in the province. Indeed, thousands of spills of oil, salinated 'produced water,' natural gas, and other substances used and extracted by the oil industry are spilled across the Saskatchewan landscape every year. A handy spreadsheet on the Ministry of Economy's website indicates that there have been over 18,000 spills in Saskatchewan since 1990. A 10-year snapshot reveals over 8,360 spills since 2006, of which Husky is responsible for 1,463 (or 17.5 per cent).

Spills are part of the everyday operations of the oil industry...Routine spills coming from small flow lines and pipelines wreak havoc in Saskatchewan's rural oil producing communities. They are often unspectacular and difficult to see, but spilt salt water and oil cause long-term damage to crops, humans, and animals. Spills impede vegetative growth, degrade native prairie by allowing noxious weeds to invade, and threaten the health of humans and animals when dugouts or other surface water is polluted."

Reacting to the latest spill, Prince Albert city manager Jim Toye was firm: "We need a deterrent. This is a very serious situation. We don't want anyone thinking this doesn't apply to them." But the deterrent is not directed against oil companies or aimed at restricting their dangerous pipelines, it's directed at people to restrict their use of water.

According to City directive, enforced with up to $1,400 fines, "any non-essential use of water must cease and desist immediately....The North Saskatchewan River is not safe for swimming or recreational use and residents are encouraged to not swim or drink the water in the river."

The solution to one pipeline problem is now to build another: Prince Albert is building a water pipeline to access the river upstream from the spill. Sam Ferris from the province's water security agency explained the unknown time and ultimate futility of this plan: "It might have to serve for some time. We don't know how long the event will endure....It won't work in Saskatchewan in the winter time, I can guarantee you that." 

Protect water, stop pipelines

Undeterred by the loss of water to 70,000 people, Premier Brad Wall reiterated his support for pipelines as a form of harm reduction -- echoed by Alberta Premier Rachel Notley: "Even with this spill it remains the case that absolutely the safest way to transport oil and gas is by way of pipeline....In everything you do there are risks, but I would suggest overall the risks [of pipelines] are low." But what are risks, and who bear the risks?

As Bobby Cameron, Chief of the Federation of Sovereign Indigenous Nations explained, "Industry has tried to minimize these types of impacts. So what is the true impact of this oil spill? We do not know. Are the booms going to contain all the oil? Absolutely not, so this could go on for years and years and years....We are talking about medicinal herbs that are grown along the riverbanks, the berries that are grown along the riverbanks; it's our way of life off the land, it's survival off the land."

Whereas the clean up response has been dominated by the company celebrating its profits and the government denying oil risks and renewable alternatives, it should be following the advice of those who best understand and protect the water. As Cameron explained: "We need further representation in the command centre…We need assurances that First Nations' interests in respect to our inherent and treaty rights to hunting, trapping, fishing and gathering will be taken into account during the decision making process. As stewards of the land it is our role to protect the environment including the waterways."

We can either support the perpetually spilling pipelines of the oil economy, the job spills required to keep their profits afloat and the restrictions on water and treaty rights that result. Or we can support the transition to a new economy based on expanding green jobs and respecting Indigenous rights. This starts by supporting communities across the country most impacted by the oil economy, who are leading efforts to protect the water on which we all depend:

  • Canada's Chemical Valley surrounds and poisons Aamjiwnaang First Nation and there is ongoing work to expose this environmental racism and protect the water. Join a documentary, discussion and fundraiser August 4, the water gathering August 19 and 20, and toxic tour August 21. For more information visit aamjiwnaangsolidarity.com.
  • Line 9 crosses 18 First Nations and threatens the water supply of millions of people, and on November 30 the Chippewas of the Thames First Nation are going to the Supreme Court to appeal the National Energy Board decision to allow Enbridge to pump tar sands through their territory without consent. To support the challenge visit www.gofundme.com/chippewas.

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