For ages, about the only inhabitants of a secluded stretch of marshland outside this Lubicon Cree community were beavers and ducks. A kilometre deep in the bush from the nearest dirt road, the boggy area was visited by the occasional aboriginal trapper.
Now it's the site of what looks like a macabre sort of carnival. Brightly coloured plastic flags stretch across a 150-metre expanse to keep birds away. Heavy trucks lumber along makeshift roads. Hundreds of workers, many wearing coveralls, goggles and breathing through masks, toil in the marsh in a desperate effort to bring it back to life.
A thick black coating covers the water and the walls of an old beaver dam, while the pungent smell of oil hangs in the air.
It's this marsh that caught nearly all of the estimated 28,000 barrels of light crude oil that spilled from Plains Midstream Canada's 45-year-old Rainbow pipeline on April 28. The oil ran 850 metres downhill and formed a pitch-black hockey stick-shaped pool in the northern muskeg.
The Rainbow spill is just the latest in a series of oil leaks in North America's vast pipeline network over the past year, and comes as Canadian energy giants are pressing to win approval for some of their most ambitious projects to date. Those include TransCanada Corp.'s Keystone XL pipeline to ship oil sands crude to the Gulf of Mexico, and Enbridge Inc.'s Northern Gateway pipeline to take Alberta crude to the British Columbia coast for shipment to then to Asia, a plan that faces fierce opposition from first nations.
The spills - some minor and some that have led to evacuations - raise questions about the safety of North America's pipeline network. Critics say many pipelines are old and prone to corrosion, and point to a regulatory system that may not be keeping pace with environmental risks and the need for quick response when things go wrong.
"Essentially, spills of this magnitude aren't supposed to happen," said Anthony Swift, a lawyer for the New York-based Natural Resources Defense Council, which is fighting the Keystone project. "If the pipeline operator was operating under current regulations, you'd perhaps have to ask, 'Are the regulations adequate?'"
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In Little Buffalo, residents say they were largely left in the dark by provincial officials for days after the spill, 12 kilometres from the community, while an acrid stench filled the air.
"We had to go to an American website to find out what actually was happening," said Carolyn Kolebaba, reeve of Northern Sunrise County, echoing the Lubicon's concerns about the slow response.
On the morning of April 29, a Friday, children at the Little Buffalo school began to complain of nausea, lack of appetite and headaches.
"We thought it was a propane leak," says teacher Mark Thorne, 25, one of a handful of teachers who live in trailers next to the school in the community of about 300. On winter days, it's not unusual for the school's propane system to clam up, causing problems. But this was spring.
The children were sent home. The school board sent out an inspector, who said there was no propane problem.
Steve Noskey and Bernard Ominayak, who both claim the title of Lubicon chief, were each called by Plains Midstream about midday Friday and told of an oil spill, though not how large. Mr. Noskey helped round up 10 local cleanup workers. He spoke with the principal of the school, but neither connected the dots, thinking a small spill and a possible propane problem were unconnected. Mr. Noskey admitted that was an oversight. "I would take responsibility for that," he said, but added that he wasn't told of the scale of the spill.
A weekend passed. On Monday the children arrived back at school, and again they complained of feeling sick. They were sent home.
"And as we were sending the kids out the door, one of the TAs [teaching assistants]was like, 'I think there's an oil spill actually. Oh, well, we haven't heard anything so I guess we'll have to wait and find out.' And that was on Monday," Mr. Thorne said.
Alberta's energy regulator drastically underestimated the size of the spill for four days, announcing on May 3, one day after the federal election, that the spill was 45 times larger than first thought. It was, in fact, the largest oil spill in Alberta in more than 30 years.
If provincial agencies "knew the immensity of the spill while on site, why weren't they informing the communities most closely impacted?" asked Melina Laboucan-Massimo, a Lubicon Cree member who works for Greenpeace.
Amid persistent smells and complaints by children, the school was closed by its principal, Brian Alexander, on Tuesday. He and Mr. Noskey asked for a meeting with the Energy Resources Conservation Board, the province's energy regulator, and with a representative of Plains Midstream that night. They say the agencies agreed.
But no one from the ERCB showed up. Instead, the agency sent a one-page fax. An aboriginal relations representative from Plains Midstream arrived but had no answers. He wrote down questions and said he'd get back to them. "That was Tuesday. A week later, I still haven't received a report," Mr. Noskey said.
Alberta Environment says the odors aren't dangerous, and air quality remains high.
"I think it's human nature that in the early stage people want answers," said Stephen Bart, vice president of operations for Plains Midstream, in an interview. "But the reality is in early stages of events, there are more unknowns than knowns."
Plains Midstream had an Emergency Response Plan. It included notifying the Department of Indian Affairs. The department is still monitoring the situation, a spokesperson said.
"They should come down here and monitor. How can they monitor from over there? TV?" says Lillian Whitehead, 63, an okskinahamakew, or teacher, of Cree at the school.
The school reopened on Tuesday, but school officials are still asking for more details about what happened.
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In two weeks, the company has cleaned up about 33 per cent of the oil, but that's the low-hanging fruit - the oil pooled on top of the open water.
Getting most of the oil, including that which has soaked into the vegetation, will take six months. Restoring it fully is out of the question, says everyone involved. The ERCB is still figuring out what caused the leak, analyzing whether the age of the pipeline is a factor, technician Sandra Blais said.
Another part of the Rainbow pipeline leaked oil in 2006, and the Alberta energy regulator ruled corrosion was the cause. The pipeline once carried diluted bitumen, the gritty oil sands product that environmentalists claim is harder on pipes than conventional oil, though industry officials deny that.
For the latest incident, Mr. Bart insists "this is not an age issue whatsoever." Instead, the 2010 repair of a faulty fitting is to blame, because workers didn't put enough soil under the line when reburying it. It sagged and snapped, he said.
Alberta Environment Minister Rob Renner toured the site a week ago and heard complaints about the slow response, for which he apologized. "In this instance, I think we all could have done a better job, government and industry, in communicating with local communities."
Currently, the pipeline is sitting filled with oil again, but the oil isn't moving. The company has asked to restart the flow. It's not clear when the ERCB will approve or deny that.
The ERCB said it has a "strict regulatory regime," admired globally. "We are confident in the existing regulations," spokesman Darin Barter said in a written statement. "For over 74 years, the [ERCB]has adapted to keep pace with industry trends and technology."
The spate of pipe spills may prove fleeting. In 2009, Alberta's pipeline industry set a record-low pipeline failure rate of 1.7 per 1,000 kilometres of pipeline.
But aboriginal leaders, whose community members are now working on the spill, remain uneasy about the future.
"They're doing the best they can right now, from what we can see," Mr. Ominayak said. "But that doesn't answer our wider questions about this spill."
What went wrong
Four things that went wrong in the Rainbow spill
1) The repair
The line was dug up and fixed in 2010 after company monitoring flagged a problem. When reburied, crews didn't put enough soil beneath it. Over the next year, the line sagged and eventually broke. Such apparently minor fixes aren't monitored by regulators.
2) The break
The break probably happened around 7 p.m. on April 28, the company says. It attempted several restarts before the pressure dropped early Friday morning. The break, in a remote area accessible at the time only by helicopter, wasn't confirmed until after dawn Friday, 12 hours later. By that point, thousands of barrels had poured into the muskeg. That delay is among the most troubling parts of the spill, said Reg Eadie, an engineering professor and pipeline expert at the University of Alberta.
3) The response
An estimated 28,000 barrels leaked altogether, making it Alberta's largest spill since the mid-1970s. But for four days, the province said the spill was only several hundred barrels. It waited until May 3, a day after the federal election, to say it was 45 times larger. Premier Ed Stelmach himself said the initial response was slow and pledged to hold the company's "feet to the fire."
The nearest community, Little Buffalo, has a school that houses more than a third of its entire population - students and staff - each day. But the school wasn't formally told until Tuesday about the spill, which happened the previous Thursday. Children complained of nausea and headaches on Friday, Monday and Tuesday. Locals say low initial estimates of the size of the spill contributed to the lack of urgency.