Oil and Environment in Alberta – Or When a Spill Hits Close to Home

Last night (June 8) a pipeline running along a tributary of the Red Deer River spilt crude oil contaminating the surrounding environment.  As Sean Kheraj noted earlier this week, this is not the first spill in recent memory and it will not be the last.  Alberta is also not the only place with oil pipelines that leak — though it might get the most publicity for various political/social reasons.  Residents of Sundre and the surrounding area are angry the spill happened and many are also shocked something like this could happen to them.  They and all other Albertans should be angry over the spill, but they should not be shocked.  In the race to make as much money as possible off the oil deposits in the province, government after government has disregarded the environment in favour of development, industry, and economic growth.  This latest spill is a reminder of the skewed approach to resource development that dominates the Alberta economy.  It is also a reminder of how sad the state of environmental protection is in the province in spite of decades of citizens pushing for better protection of the environment.  

As news of the spill spreads and news outlets decide how best to spin the story, I am working on a short paper/presentation about a pair of court cases from the late 1970s that attempted to bring about changes to the provincial Clean Air and Clean Water acts by illustrating how many loop-holes there were for industry to pollute without suffering repercussions.  I don’t want to give away the whole story since in a couple weeks this will be presented at a conference, but the people behind the case (STOP and friends) knew a win was unlikely.  They continued to pursue the case because it was through the failure of the courts to penalize industry for excessive pollution that they would succeed in showing some of the massive failings of the anti-pollution legislation.  

Leaving aside the idea of success through failure, the cases are an interesting reminder of what citizens of Alberta have fought against for decades in the quest to ensure they had a healthy environment to live in and the fallacy that underlies a great deal of anti-pollution and environmental protection legislation.  These pieces of legislation are too often handicapped by the demands of industry, but are presented to the public in a way that hides how these considerations will negatively impact their lives.  In the case of the pipelines spills that keep happening residents are ensured they are protected but often the continued monitoring of the pipelines an independent body is overlooked or abandoned in the name of efficiency and economics.  As a result the pipelines deteriorate and eventually there is a spill that contaminates and environment; threatening the livelihoods of the people living on the land and the health of humans and non-humans in the environment.  Pipelines spills should never be a surprise.  But they should make everyone angry that the governments that we elect to act in our best interest disregard this trust often enough that our lives and health are put at risk.

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This most recent spill also hit very close to home.  When my great grandfather came to Canada from Scotland, he settled in Sundre.  He owned the general store and lumber yard — John Macleod and Co.  His wife, Ethel, was a nurse and made amazing donuts that got people out of their house on the coldest of winter days.  My Poppy grew up fishing on the Red Deer River as did his sister and their cousins.  The family even did a pack-trip to the origins of the Red Deer River when my Poppy was a teenager (the photographs are fantastic).  My mum and her brothers grew-up down stream from Sundre but did their fair share of fishing around Sundre and every fish I’ve ever caught came from the Red Deer River.  My much younger cousins play in that river every Canada Day during the Macleod Family Reunion.  It saddens me to think this year they might not be able to play or fish in that river because of the neglect of the infrastructure keeping pollutants out of the environment.  

It saddens me that when these spills happen the journalists decry the oil based Alberta economy or our societies addiction to oil (the thing that drive the oil economy) until another story happens.  Then they forget.  The people living along the Red Deer River will spend years, decades even, watching the water and waiting for all the oil to finally be cleaned from the environment.  All that time their children will not be able to play and fish in the waters they once did, their livestock will not be able to drink as freely as they once did, and they will be on the look out for the various poisonings that come from a crude oil spill (even a small and quickly contained one).  And while the people along the Red Deer River — and in all the other parts of Alberta effected by pipeline spills in the past decade — wait for the environment to recover, the journalists will forget and the rest of the world will forget.  When it happens to those who forgot, they will be just as surprised as the people in the Sundre area are today.  They will ask “how could this happen”.  And the answer will remain the same.

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About Lauren Wheeler

Just a reformed history phd student working as a public historian and staying connected with the environmental history world from remote Edmonton. Requires coffee, music, laughter, and regular escapes to less Edmonton-like places.
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3 Responses to Oil and Environment in Alberta – Or When a Spill Hits Close to Home

  1. seankheraj says:

    Very nice post, Lauren. Your knowledge of the history of the environmental movement in Alberta is so important for understanding events like this recent oil pipeline spill on the Red Deer River.

    And, yes, this spill has drawn a significant amount of news media attention and memory of this event will likely fade away. But while this spill drew national attention, the larger May 2012 spill near Rainbow Lake barely stimulated more than an article in the Globe and Mail. The national (and even sometimes the local) news media outlets more often ignore oil pipeline spills in Alberta. Between 2006 and 2010 there were more than 1600 crude oil spills on Alberta’s pipeline system. How many made it to The National on CBC? Very few.

  2. Pingback: History Carnival 111: Environmental History Edition | Stillwater Historians

  3. Rubin Laneve says:

    Oil spills are very damaging to the environment. I just hope that the oil companies gets more responsible and create some more safety measures when transferring oil on oil tankers and oil rigs. .:’:, Enjoy your weekend! supplements website

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