It’s been almost a year since approximately 600,000 litres of gasoline spilled out of an Imperial Oil storage tank in Nova Scotia, and some residents whose homes neighbour the site say more action is needed to prevent future pollution.

In July 2022, a tank was accidentally punctured by machinery in the north end of Sydney, the largest city on Cape Breton Island. Grace Arsenault got a call while at work that her neighbourhood was being advised to evacuate: emergency crews were going door to door to dozens of homes, although the area was deemed safe later that day. However, it wasn’t the end for Arsenault, who says she — and other residents — have been pressing the company and the provincial government for action and information since.

Arsenault is part of a residents group called The Future of the North-end, which wants to see soil sampling from the area to get an idea of the long-term impact of the spill. The group is also calling for the company to build an alternate trucking road so fuel trucks don’t have to drive through their neighbourhoods.

The group, along with the regional municipality, is asking Imperial to move the gas storage facility away from their residential neighbourhood once it reaches the end of its lifespan, and requesting Imperial buy a foam fire suppression system — which is used to extinguish large-scale fires — to have on site. During July’s spill, there wasn’t any gear on site, and a truck had to be brought over from the airport to spray foam on the leaked gas.

At a community meeting in September, Imperial Oil admitted — after saying multiple times the containment berm around the tanks held the spill — that around 3,000 litres of gas were not contained. The company is currently under fire for neglecting to alert the downriver Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation of a huge release of oilsands tailings at its Kearl oilsands mine in northern Alberta.

The Imperial Oil site in Sydney is seen next to a residential street. Photo submitted by Grace Arsenault

In an emailed response to Canada’s National Observer, Imperial Oil said it has worked to keep the municipality and emergency services updated since the spill in Sydney, and that the company is in “active discussions” with the municipality “about emergency services regarding respective learnings from the event.” The municipality and the company are also “jointly evaluating equipment and training that would be beneficial to both [Cape Breton Regional Municipality] emergency responders and Imperial.”

The company says it “went door-to-door to talk with impacted neighbours following the July 8 incident, offered compensation to those who were inconvenienced by the temporary evacuation, have communicated regularly with community groups and have participated in-person at a community meeting.”

The investigation into the spill by Nova Scotia Environment and Climate Change (NSECC) ended in October. The company “responded appropriately under the department’s Environmental Emergency Regulations,” NSECC said.

In 2022, an Imperial Oil storage tank was accidentally punctured by machinery in the north end of Sydney, N.S. Grace Arsenault and other residents have been pressing the company and the provincial government for action and information since.

The department said Imperial Oil’s site was found to be historically contaminated before the July incident occurred, which included “gasoline that had released to the soil from a leak in the containment berm.” Imperial Oil notified the department and is completing an environmental site assessment, which means the company will need to sample and test the soil. The assessment is due in August, said the department, noting results will not be made public but could be requested from Imperial.

For Arsenault and other residents, having soil results public and accessible is top of mind. Until that happens, and unless Imperial makes some concrete promises on relocation and fire prevention, residents will remain uneasy, she said.

“It seems to me, you could probably go into most provinces in Canada and see the bad publicity of Imperial Oil,” said Arsenault. “How do they get away with this stuff?”

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Imperial is described as "a Canadian company", but is 70% owned by Exxon.