Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Pipeline inquiries must be quick, unsullied, convincing

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Grave concerns remain about the health of fish -- and other animals -- in Central Alberta in the wake of the June oil pipeline rupture.

The spill, relatively minor on the oil disasters scale (if any such calamity can be termed minor), should now be seen as a cautionary tale for a country desperate to sell its resources and for a province desperate to maximize its income from those sales.

Last week, the Alberta announced catch-and-release restrictions have been put in place on the main stem of the Red Deer River, upstream to Banff National Park boundary.

The announcement of the restriction comes two months after 475,000 litres of light sour crude oil was released into the Red Deer River from a ruptured Plains Midstream Canada pipeline.

Alberta Environment and Sustainable Resource Development intends to sample fish populations to assess damage from the pipeline leak.

The sampling and monitoring programs do not necessarily mean fish stock has been significantly damaged. But it does mean there is a concern. And that should be enough to set off alarm bells.

Why that concern is only now being raised, a full two months after the June 7 spill, raises significant questions.

"The fact that the government takes so long to make a decision on 'Hey, maybe we should make this a catch-and-release' tells you about the larger picture," local guide Dave Jensen told the Advocate last week.

"Is this something that could have happened immediately but didn't? Yes."

But can we draw lessons -- and some clear resolutions for change -- from this mess? We can and we should -- and not a moment too soon.

The pipelines that criss-cross this nation, and Alberta in particular, should not be rubber stamped as safe and durable. Clearly, the technology used to construct and maintain the existing network of pipelines is antiquated. And the system to maintain -- and police that maintenance -- is substandard.

Any plan for future pipeline development (and we all know the mammoth scale of the Keystone and Northern Gateway projects) must meet standards for public and environmental safety far greater than ever conceived before.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper pronounced last week due process and scientific standards alone will determine the fate of Enbridge's proposed Northern Gateway oil pipeline.

Critics are skeptical, pointing to the Harper government's penchant for political expediency over scientific rigour (and its habit of clawing back funding for science and environmental monitoring).

Couple that with the federal government's flawed proposed Fisheries Act, which the outdoor lobby says gives "no consideration to the habitat surrounding a fishery (and) will most certainly result in a deterioration of water quality, which ultimately will jeopardize many important fisheries and, potentially, watersheds."

Those are the words of the Alberta Fish and Game Association, which has an obvious vested interest in protecting the fishery habitat in this province. Their words should not fall on deaf ears. Harper needs to ensure no political interference sullies the Northern Gateway hearings. Alberta Premier Alison Redford needs to ensure the inquiry into pipeline safety is independent and thorough.

And Redford needs be quick and aggressive in shaping the inquiry's findings into a new framework for safe transportation of oil and gas.

We need the income that will be drawn from the export of our resources. But we also need not be left with a mess as we pump the oil and gas out of the province.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition August 13, 2012 A10

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