Husky Energy pleads guilty in 2016 oil spill into North Saskatchewan River

Husky Energy has pleaded guilty nearly three years after 225,000 litres of oil and other fluids leaked from a damaged pipeline and into the North Saskatchewan River.

The company pleaded guilty Wednesday to spilling oil near Maidstone, Sask., in July 2016. The Crown withdrew other charges against Husky, including not immediately notifying authorities and not taking immediate remedies to prevent or counteract the effects of the spill.

The Crown agreed the timeline of the spill was limited to July 20-21 rather than the timeline of July 20-26 that was laid out in the initial charges.

It’s possible the judge will proceed to sentencing today as the hearing continues in Lloydminster provincial court.

A lawyer for the provincial government blamed the leak on shifting ground near the riverbank that led to increased pressure on the pipeline and an eventual break, and said the slumping riverbank was a rare occurrence in the area.

The pipeline’s leak detection alarms apparently didn’t signal the cause or exact location of the break.

The Crown prosecutor told court the spill was first reported to Environment Canada by a civilian and then by a “third-party operator.”

Husky shut down the pipeline at 10 a.m. on July 21. The spill had started the previous day and the company didn’t notify authorities of it until 1:50 p.m. that day.

Environment Canada and Husky eventually took joint command to respond to the spill. Crews searched over 900 kilometres of shoreline to trace the origin of the leak, including which pipeline in the area was damaged.

The Crown said the pipeline was not built to take into account thermal pressure caused by the moving ground. A company hired by Husky said it wasn’t feasible to actively mitigate the slumping ground, only to monitor the situation.

Husky said the pipeline was built to industry standards.

The spill affected many towns and cities located downstream. Many cities that relied on the North Saskatchewan River for drinking water immediately shut down their water intakes.

The piped water supply of the Saskatchewn Hospital mental-health facility in North Battleford was cut off for almost two months, and water had to be trucked into the area.

‘Inadequate and incomplete’

Chief Wayne Semaganis of the Little Pine First Nation, which is downstream from the spill, delivered a victim impact statement at Wednesday’s hearing.  

Semaganis said the response to the spill was delayed, which damaged the environment and reserve lands along the river.

“The cleanup is inadequate and incomplete,” he told the court.

The chief went on to say the James Smith Cree Nation, which is further down the North Saskatchewan, saw excessive levels of contamination in fish spawning beds. 

Semaganis said people no longer farm, fish or collect medicinal plants near the river for fear of being poisoned.

Representatives from the cities of North Battleford and Prince Albert also read out victim impact statements.

A representative from North Battleford said drinking water continues to be affected. The city still operates an additional filtration plant.

The representative said the impact was “dire and ongoing,” although Husky had been diligent in taking responsibility.

Oil-covered fish

During field studies performed after the spill, a number of oil-covered fish were recovered but were too decomposed for an autopsy to be performed.

A Husky Energy assessment said health risks from drinking water from the river were negligible.

The federal Attorney General’s Office said Husky was co-operative with investigators throughout the incident.

The company has spent $144 million in response to the spill.

Last year, the Saskatchewan premier’s office said the company faces a possible maximum $1-million fine.

CBC reporter Guy Quenneville is reporting live from today’s court appearance. On mobile? Click here.

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