Eight months later CNRL sites continue to seep bitumen

A look back at the year that was on CNRL's Primrose sites


  |  Posted: Tuesday, Dec 31, 2013 06:00 am

A photo of a CNRL Primrose South site near Cold Lake, where the company had to drain an body of water.
A photo of a CNRL Primrose South site near Cold Lake, where the company had to drain an body of water.

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Nearly two million litres of bitumen emulsion has seeped to the surface at the Canadian Natural Resources Ltd (CNRL) Primrose site this year and the company still hasn’t found a way to stop it.

Four separate spills, which were reported on May 20, June 8 and June 24 of 2013, resulted in 1.878 million liters of bitumen emulsion leaking into the environment at the CNRL Primrose site, 45 kilometers northwest of Cold Lake.

As of Sept. 14, the company had removed a total of 202 dead animals, 515 cubic metres of oily vegetation and 14,491 metric tones of soil due to the impact caused by the bitumen releases.

The company received a series of environmental protection orders (EPO) from the Alberta Energy Regulator (AER) and Alberta Environment and Sustainable Resource Development (ESRD), which forced the company to speed up its cleaning process, temporarily remove water from an unnamed body of water, and research the spills’ impacts on groundwater aquifers.

The fourth spill, which was reported on June 24, resulted in the AER stepping in and ordering the first series of restrictions, officially launching an investigation.

The AER’s initial order to CNRL was to restrict steam injections, enhance monitoring and continue to accelerate cleanup efforts.

Over a month later the company and the energy regulator reported the site was still seeping bitumen emulsion into the environment. The affected area was mapped out to be 13.5 hectares of land, which included an unnamed body of water near the Cold Lake Air Weapons Range.

CNRL Investor Relations issued its first response to the situation in an email to the Bonnyville Nouvelle, which appeared in the July 30 issue of the paper.

“The areas have been secured and the emulsion is being managed with clean up, recovery and reclamation activities well underway. The presence of emulsion on the surface does not pose a health or human safety risk. The sites are located in a remote area, which has restricted access to the public. The emulsion is being effectively cleaned up with manageable environmental impact.”

At the beginning of August, CNRL held a conference call in which company President Steve Laut addressed the media and investors.

“Canadian Natural is confident the cause of the bitumen emulsion seepage is due to mechanical failure of wellbores in the vicinity of the impacted location,” said Laut on July 31.

“We have a pretty good idea of the likely wellbores. The one well that we are looking at was an old well drilled by a previous operator in the area, in like 1997. That is what we think the most likely culprit is,” said Laut.

This was the first time that CNRL had mentioned the suspected reason as to why the bitumen seepage was happening. Still, the four locations continued to seep bitumen into the environment at a combined rate of about 20 barrels a day.

The fact the spill had been going on for three months without much of a solution irked environmentalists, such as Mike Hudema of Greenpeace Canada.

“A company should only get so many chances before the government steps in and says ‘no more’. Given the four current on-going spills and CNRL’s poor spill track record, CNRL has had more than its fair share,” said Hudema.

“The Alberta Energy Regulator should revoke CNRL’s approval at this site and review and increase safety measures for in-situ sites throughout the province. It’s time Alberta’s Energy Regulator actually stood-up for the public interest. Revoking CNRL’s approval would be a good and justified start.”

Over three months after the fourth was reported, CNRL took media and politicians on a tour around the affected site.

Former Bonnyville Mayor Ernie Isley, who participated in a tour on August 8, felt the clean-up efforts were going great and that the company was being “super-responsible”.

“This is the cost of doing business,” said Isley. The company is “expending a lot of money and a lot of resources to find out the source of the leaks and fix it. You never want to see this but you’re in this business and there will be equipment failures and machines break.”

After seeing the pictures and reports taken during the media tour, a variety of groups stepped up and supported the idea of a public inquiry into the safety of in-situ technology.

On Aug. 13, a lengthy, detailed letter was sent to AER CEO Jim Ellis, calling for a broad investigation into the safety of in-situ technology.

“While the AER has suspended and restricted steam injection operations at the CNRL Primrose operations in response to the most recent events, it is unacceptable to have long fissures in the ground that will continue to spill toxic heated bitumen to surface, and to further risk our water and groundwater resources from these activities. The time has come for a broader inquiry into CSS and SAGD steam injection operations”, said Carolyn Campbell, Conservation Specialist with the Alberta Wilderness Association.

The beginning of October saw the Alberta ESRD order CNRL to temporarily remove water from an unnamed body of water at their Primrose site, which had been contaminated by the spill.

The ESRD felt that the temporary containment measures in place at the time wouldn’t have been effective in the winter if the lake froze all the way to the bottom.

CNRL has said the removal of the water will allow workers access to a fissure at the bottom of the shallow body of water.

“We are in a phase in our restoration plan for the site where we require access to the fissure below the shallow water body,” wrote CNRL public affairs advisor Zoe Addington. “This (EPO) will allow us to isolate, excavate and contain the fissure below the water body. To facilitate this work, the water from the area will be moved and stored near-by and returned the following year.”

By Oct. 10, four organizations – CNRL, the AER, Alberta ESRD and Environment Canada – were investigating the incidents.

Former Alberta Energy Minister Ken Hughes visited the Primrose sites a few times over the course of the year and has continued to receive updates on the situation.

“I can tell you that (CNRL) is under the very tight guidance of the regulator to ensure we understand exactly what is going on there and that this kind of emulsion of bitumen does not happen again,” said Hughes, in an interview with the Bonnyville Nouvelle.

“The regulator is working with the company to try and understand exactly what the root cause of the problem is and that will inform the regulator about what the company can do in the future to specifically avoid this happening again.”

November saw another enforcement order handed out to CNRL, which required the company to determine the impact on subsurface groundwater and find the root cause of all four bitumen releases.

According to the 15-page enforcement order, bitumen emulsion, which has been seeping to the surface on an ongoing basis for the past six months, “has entered local non-saline groundwater aquifers, likely contaminating the groundwater.”

“(CNRL’s) efforts to date have focused on ensuring each surface location is secured, and that recovery and reclamation activities progress,” wrote Addington, in an email to the Nouvelle.

“We will comply with all aspects of the order and we look forward to the opportunity to further our investigation in a timely manner. Canadian Natural will continue to make available any resources for investigation and clean-up and towards putting safeguards in place to ensure events such as these do not happen again.”

To execute the order, CNRL must initiate a drilling program. The work will be done during the winter months to minimize the environmental impact of the drilling activities.

CNRL has no new information on the spill and has yet to officially release the cause of the four sites seeping bitumen emulsion to the surface. The company plans to release a detailed report, along with an updated website in the second week of January.


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