Oil spill in Lubicon Lake Cree Nation, Alberta: KAIROS urgent action

May 6, 2011
KAIROS Canadian Ecumenical Justice Initiatives

The largest oil spill in Alberta since 1975 has taken place on the doorstep of the Lubicon Cree community of Little Buffalo. Over 28,000 barrels of oil, or 5.2 million litres, have leaked from an ageing pipeline and are at severe risk of spreading throughout local waterways. Members of the Lubicon community are reporting illnesses as a result of the stench of oil in the air, and that the company involved is not providing clear information. In keeping with decades of solidarity with the Lubicon Cree band, which has never ceded its rights to its 10,000 square kilometre traditional territory, KAIROS is asking you to take action. The community is asking for your help in pressing the Alberta government and the company for clear and timely information.


Please ask that the Energy Resources Conservation Board of Alberta (ERCB) and Plains Midstream meet Lubicon needs now. The Lubicon Cree are asking that the following be done:

 - The ERCB attend Lubicon community meetings to answer directly community members' questions

 - An independent environmental assessment be completed as soon as possible and be reported directly to the community

 - A Lubicon fly-over of the spill-affected area to survey immediate damage to the traditional territory

 - A health response team be stationed in the Lubicon community, to immediately to  respond to those who continue to get sick from contamination, especially children

In your response, please note that other First Nations and communities in the area have not been informed of the spill.

Contact the ERCB as soon as possible via phone, fax, or email:

Dan McFadyen, Chairman

 Energy Resources Conservation Board, Suite 1000, 250 - 5 Street SW, Calgary, Alberta. T2P 0R4

Chairman's phone: (403) 297-2215   FAX: (403) 297-7336

 Inquiries[at]ercb[dot]ca or Dan.McFadyen[at]ercb[dot]ca

Please cc all letters to Alberta Premier Ed Stelmach:

Office of the Premier, Room 307, Legislature Building, 10800 - 97th Avenue, Edmonton, Alberta.  T5K 2B7

 Fax: (780) 427 1349

And to KAIROS:

211 Bronson Ave., # 211, Ottawa, K1R 6H5


More information:

Amnesty International (Canada) statement

Press release: Residents, including children, sick after large oil spill in the Peace Region

Globe and Mail article

KAIROS Lubicon Cree page

For more information on KAIROS’ long-standing work alongside the Lubicon Cree Nation, please contact Ed Bianchi, Indigenous Rights program coordinator, at ebianchi[at]kairoscanada[dot]org or 613 235 9956 x221.

Further background:

For decades the Lubicon Cree have struggled for recognition of their land and treaty rights; to this day, they do not have a reserve. In the 1980’s they called on Canadians to help them stop clearcut logging in their traditional territory. In this century, that call focused on oil and gas companies, which have set up shop throughout the territory.

A recent Globe and Mail article on the oil spill observed that “Some 20 local people have been hired to help with the 24-hour a day cleanup operation, but the spill has brought into sharp focus some of the long-standing ills that afflict Little Buffalo. The community has no running water; instead, water is trucked in, and people hand-carry it into their houses from 45-gallon oil drums. With no plumbing, people rely on outhouses. Showers are available at the school, but many wash using sponge baths.”

The situation now facing the community is yet another expression of their decades-long struggle for recognition, and for a say in what happens in their traditional lands and waters. It’s also related to the overwhelming presence of the oil and gas industry in Alberta’s economy and its rural areas.

The provincial regulatory authority, the Energy Resources Conservation Board (ERCB), approves far more energy projects each year than it inspects. Faced with a geometrically growing number of un-inspected projects and a growing backlog of project applications prompted by the high price of oil, the province opted for streamlining the regulatory process to approve projects faster.

The TransCanada Pipeline was approved by this streamlined process.  The basic principle of environmental regulation in Alberta is self-regulation by the companies. The companies monitor themselves and are supposed to report to the province what they're putting into the water and air. The amount of money the companies make is so large and the penalties for infractions so small that the gamble of ignoring the system is a small one.

The spill was caused by failure of a large oil pipeline built through Lubicon territory some 45

years ago to transport oil from oil fields north east of  the territory to oil refineries near Edmonton. That was a dozen or more years before oil companies moved into Lubicon Territory en masse to exploit the gas and oil resources there. Media reports say provincial regulators last inspected this 45 year oil pipeline in 2009 using "an ultrasonic tool".

The spill occurred April 29 at 7:30 AM. Instead of attending a community meeting, the Alberta Energy Resources Conservation Board (ERCB) faxed a one-page fact sheet to Little Buffalo School. The fact sheet indicates that tens of thousands of barrels of crude oil have spilled, stating that the spill is 30 kilometres from the Lubicon community of Little Buffalo Lake and 300 meters away from "any flowing water, and is pooling in a stagnant pond". By contrast, community members report that the spill is seven kilometres away from Little Buffalo, located in wetlands that connect the underground water system in the Lubicon area, and is only three kilometres away from Lubicon Lake. 

The ERCB said the spill has been contained, but community members report that the oil is still leaking into the surrounding forest and bog. The ERCB also said to the community that there is "no threat to public safety as a result of the leak."

Yet classes have been suspended due to the noxious odours in the air. “The children and staff at the school were disorientated, getting headaches and feeling sick to their stomachs," said Brian Alexander, the principle of Little Buffalo School. "We tried to send the children outside to get fresh air as it seemed worse in the school but when we sent them out they were getting sick as well.”

Provincial officials deny these illnesses are related to the spill. Davis Sheremata, spokesman for Alberta's Energy Resources Conservation Board, denied that problems in Little Buffalo were connected to the leak, saying "We often will get complaints like this and sometimes it is a feedlot nearby. Sometimes it's an asphalt operation. Sometimes it's not oil-and-gas related. We're looking into it."  Yet people who have lived in the community state there is no feedlot or asphalt operation anywhere in the area.

"The company and the ERCB have given us little information in the past five days.  What we do know is that the health of our community is at stake," said Chief Steve Nosky. "Our children cannot attend school until there is a resolution. The ERCB is not being accountable to our community; they did not even show up to our community meeting to inform us of the unsettling situation we are dealing with. The company is failing to provide sufficient information to us so we can ensure that the health and safety of our community is protected."