A poisonous, corrosive and flammable gas has been detected near a TC Energy pipeline roughly 70 kilometres west of Fort McKay, Alta.
The company received complaints of odours in the “remote area” on April 27, which it then reported to the Alberta Energy Regulator (AER), according to a note the AER sent to area First Nations on Saturday.
That same day, TC Energy shut down the White Spruce Pipeline “out of an abundance of caution” to investigate the odour, according to an emailed statement TC Energy media relations sent to Canada’s National Observer Monday evening. The company, in collaboration with the AER, “determined the source of the odour is not related to the operation of our asset,” noting its monitoring did not detect any pressure drops or other indications of a release from the pipeline. On Saturday, April 29, the pipeline resumed operations.
TC Energy and AER’s inspection found the source of the smell is hydrogen sulfide, a dangerous gas often characterized as smelling like rotten eggs. It occurs naturally in oil and gas wells and is found during the drilling and production of crude oil and natural gas.
Also referred to as sewer or swamp gas, hydrogen sulfide poses many health risks. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention warns exposure can irritate the eyes and respiratory system and cause apnea, coma, convulsions, dizziness, headache, weakness, irritability, insomnia and upset stomach, depending on the dose and duration of exposure. Inhaling high concentrations can produce “extremely rapid unconsciousness and death.”
“We take that one really — like really, really — seriously,” Daniel Stuckless, director for Fort McKay Métis Nation, told Canada’s National Observer in a phone interview Monday evening. “It's not something you want to have happen in low-lying areas where that gas doesn't get a chance to lose its concentration in the natural environment.”
A TC Energy representative left Stuckless a voicemail at about midday on Friday to let him know about complaints of an odour in the area, and the following day, the AER notice identified it as hydrogen sulfide. Stuckless said in his experience, TC Energy is “forthcoming” when something goes wrong and has “one of the better notification protocols.” For this reason, he thinks TC Energy wasn’t aware the gas was hydrogen sulfide when the company left the voicemail.
Even though there may not have been anyone in the area, Stuckless says incidents like this one always revive the fears people have about safe consumption of land resources in their traditional territory.
A poisonous, corrosive and flammable gas has been detected near a TC Energy pipeline roughly 70 kilometres west of Fort McKay, Alberta. #HydrogenSulfide #H2S #Oilsands #TCEnergy
The AER’s note from Saturday morning said “further inspection is ongoing to determine the source, as the pipeline is licensed as a sweet crude pipeline.” Sweet crude refers to oil that has small amounts of hydrogen sulfide — less than half a per cent — compared to crude oil. Hydrogen sulfide can cause serious corrosion issues for pipelines, particularly in higher concentrations.
“The AER will continue to oversee the area to ensure our priorities of public health and environmental safety,” it reads. The provincial energy regulator says it has also notified First Nation and Métis communities in the area, as well as Alberta Environment and Protected Areas and Environment Canada and Climate Change.
More information will be provided when it comes available, according to the AER.
Last week, the AER publicly apologized and pledged to improve communication and transparency at a recent parliamentary committee meeting on the Kearl tailings leaks, which stands in stark contrast to the recent communication Stuckless described.
“We actually received word from the AER that they won't be providing any information above and beyond what they're providing through their stakeholder output,” he said. After the hearings, which garnered national attention, it seems odd to him for AER “to lock down communication and only send out canned statements once they're available and not ask or take questions from stakeholders.”
If there’s a spill, the nation wants to know what was spilled, he said. If wildlife are affected, they want to know what species; if it's close to a community, they want to make sure a health official is on the case. Stuckless cited examples of typical questions they would pose to the regulator. “These are not uncommon or unreasonable asks, and for some reason, now we're being shut out.”
“I thought … the committee hearings in Ottawa were going to raise the standard,” said Stuckless. “But it appears now a week later, we've lowered them. And now we're not talking at all. So it doesn't sound like it's a great move in the right direction.”
Fort McKay First Nation and ECCC did not immediately return a request for comment before the time of publication.
Natasha Bulowski / Local Journalism Initiative / Canada’s National Observer