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26th August 2016
First Nation with poisoned waters feels abandoned after Husky oil spill PART ONE

By Elizabeth McSheffrey in News, Energy August 24th 2016

A First Nations community in Saskatchewan is feeling abandoned with poisoned waters in the wake of a major pipeline spill that has leaked massive amounts of oil and other toxins onto its territory.

The devastating impacts that the James Smith Cree Nation observed this week on wildlife, nearly 300 kilometres away from the source of a Husky Energy pipeline spill, are coming to light as the Calgary-based oil company dismissed allegations that it hired an industry-friendly consulting firm to assist with water testing in order to downplay the disaster.

Husky has been under fire since one of its pipelines failed early on July 21, releasing up to 1,570 barrels - roughly 250,000 litres - of crude oil and other toxins into the North Saskatchewan River, a drinking water source for thousands of Canadians.

The disaster prompted emergency water restrictions in several municipalities, killed more than 140 animals, and is the subject of federal and provincial investigation.

The James Smith Cree Nation, a community of 1,600 people about 80 kilometres east of Prince Albert, has not been impressed by Husky's response. Chief Wally Burns said the provincial government has sent officials to test the water, but his own community is now running out of funds to pursue its own response to the disaster.

“Husky hasn't come to the table and they failed to help," said Burns in an interview with National Observer. "That’s the way I see it. And yet it’s their problem. I’m just here to protect my people, the future generations to come, so that they can have a good life.”

Consulting firm accused of protecting industry

Adding fuel to the fire is the fact that one of the expert organizations recruited to analyze Husky's water data from the river, the U.S. based Center for Toxicology and Environmental Health (CTEH), has previously been accused of "protecting industry" by downplaying the severity of oil spills. The controversial consulting firm whole-heartedly denies these accusations, but its involvement has still prompted some critics to question whether the public can trust any information coming from Husky about its cleanup.

Husky spokesperson Mel Duvall would not elaborate on CTEH's particular role in spill analysis beyond information already available on Husky's website, but confirmed via email that it had been contracted exclusively by Husky, and responds to the company's Unified Command, which directs emergency response in partnership with the Saskatchewan Ministry of Environment.

The consulting firm is part of Husky's technical working group charged with determining "current and ongoing risks to aquatic life," along with various engineers, toxicologists, and environmental and public health specialists. The group's collective analysis will help inform final recommendations from the Saskatchewan and federal government as a result of the spill, and will also be considered by water security experts, biologists, chemists, and environmental protection officers. ​

Critics say the use of the U.S. consulting firm is particularly troubling given that Husky has declined to provide the public with a detailed breakdown of the methodology used to collect more than 1,000 water samples from the North Saskatchewan River, including how long after the spill they were taken, how badly they flunked government drinking water safety standards, and what proportion of the samples were taken at varying river depths as the crude oil began to sink.

The results for sampling of the James Smith Cree Nation water have not yet been released, but officials have previously noted that only five samples from completed tests revealed dangerous levels of toxins unfit for human consumption, and that no additional samples taken more than three days after the disaster exceeded drinking water guidelines. Chief Burns's observations however, suggest the problem is more serious and raise questions about the water samples that passed the testing, which were, in part, analyzed by CTEH.

"Fox guarding the chicken coop"

In 2010, the New York Times published a scathing article raising questions about the objectivity of Center for Toxicology and Environmental Health (CTEH), a science-based environmental consulting firm headquartered in Arkansas. The company rose to prominence in its field after analyzing test results for large energy corporations during a 2005 Hurricane Katrina-related oil spill in Louisiana and a flood of coal ash in central Tennessee in 2008, among other toxic accidents.

But as the firm was contracted by BP to provide analysis during the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, the Times reported a "troubling pattern" revealing that CTEH has regularly failed to release a complete portfolio of data from its studies, which tends works in its client's favour.

After the 2008 breach in the Tennessee Valley Authority's coal ash dam, for example, CTEH staffers were caught installing low-volume air quality monitors that fell short of U.S. Environmental Protection Agency standards. Two years earlier, it failed to find unsafe levels of hydrogen sulfide in drywall during a study commissioned by a Chinese manufacturer, despite that very same manufacturer appearing on a top 10 list of "problem drywall" manufacturers identified by the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission.

In 2005, while on contract for Murphy Oil to work on a spill from a refinery damaged by Hurricane Katrina flooding, a CTEH employee was further found on video by a Louisiana nonprofit group, "smacking a soil sample against the pavement to dilute any possible chemical contamination before testing."

"It's essentially the fox guarding the chicken coop," Nicholas Cheremisinoff, a former Exxon chemical engineer, told The New York Times. "There is a huge incentive for them to under-report... the same thing applies on the health and safety side."

Husky Energy dismissed the concerns via email.

"It’s a Green News article," Duvall said of the New York Times piece. "All information is being shared openly with all levels of government and CTEH is working at the direction of Unified Command."

Husky accused of "manipulating" public opinion

In an email to National Observer, CTEH spokesperson Denver Peacock said the firm continues to refute the piece published in the New York Times, which "has no basis in fact."

"In conjunction with our partners on the ground, as well as local, provincial and federal government agencies, CTEH’s scientists work with the highest level of scientific integrity and transparency to protect the public and the environment," said the email.

Paul Nony, a CTEH toxicologist working on water quality assessment for the Husky oil spill, turned down National Observer's request for an interview, but was previously quoted in the Toronto Star after five water samples from the contaminated North Saskatchewan River failed to meet federal guidelines for safe drinking water:

"It’s been mostly fairly low levels, but just happen to be above those conservative benchmarks," he said in an early August press conference. "But again, these are sporadic detections that exceeded those benchmarks."

Nony also told the Globe and Mail that these results "suggest there is not an ongoing issue, which is fairly expected,” and that CTEH is "not seeing any surprises."

Mark Calzavara, a regional organizer for the social action organization, Council of Canadians, accused the consulting firm of "downplaying the effects of the spill in the media."

"Husky is desperately trying to manipulate public opinion after their disastrous spill," he said in an interview with National Observer. "The Center for Toxicology and Environmental Health is nothing more than a hired gun brought in to downplay the effects of the spill. They would be more aptly named 'Oil Spill Spin Incorporated,' which better describes their history and clientele."

The accusations, while unproven, are concerning given that Husky has refused to answer repeated requests from National Observer for more information on the methodology of its water quality testing, the timeline of the spill's detection, and when such data might be made available to the public.

“I suggest you go to our website for the latest information,” was all Duvall, its spokesperson, said in an email statement.

James Smith Cree Nation left behind

Readers won't find any information on Husky's website however, describing the plight of Saskatchewan's James Smith Cree Nation, whose portion of the North Saskatchewan River is covered in a visible oil slick. The Indigenous community is located past the point where Husky has focused much of its containment effort, and has been forced to set up its own booms to contain the oil and foam washing up along its shoreline.

“I don't know what kind of booms Husky has but I’m pretty sure their booms aren't working,” Chief Wally Burns told National Observer. “I walked the beach yesterday and noticed that there are a lot of crayfish that are dead.”

According to Husky's latest water quality assessment update, its technical working group - which includes CTEH - has collected more than 2,000 water samples from the site of the spill near Maidstone, Sask. to Prince Albert, which declared a local state of emergency after the leak compromised its drinking water. The report gives no indication that Husky has tested any water as far east as the James Smith Cree Nation, and its spokesperson would not confirm in an email whether Husky knew the spill had extended that far, or whether it had any intention of extending its spill response to include the Indigenous community.

"We have worked closely with the experts to determine where the booms can be most effective," wrote Duvall.

But that's not good enough, according to Chief Burns, who said that in addition to leaving a trail of dead crayfish, the spill has forced most of the butterflies, dragonflies, and frogs in the area to retreat. He also said his community has had two meetings with Husky Energy to discuss the problem, both of which have been unproductive, and that the band has been forced to deplete its $17,000 budget - initially allocated to deal with a flooding problem - to its own spill response initiative.

He hopes Husky will compensate them, but was not thrilled about the company's early response.

“The way I see it, they’re downplaying everything," he explained. “Right now, we’re going to do this on our own with what little resources we have… and we’re going to show Husky that they violated our rights."

Burns said Husky had finally agreed to meet with him again on Thursday, along with government officials from two federal departments: Environment and Climate Change Canada and Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada. When asked about this, Husky declined to confirm or comment on whether it has ever had any meetings with the First Nation.

The entire affair not only raises questions about the company's transparency, but about the real quality of the water toxicity tests before performed by CTEH and the technical working group. How far along the river do they really extend? How badly did they fail federal safety standards?

Émilien Pelletier, a water chemist at the University of Quebec in Rimouski, said “there’s no question” this information should be made available to the public, and labelled the company’s silence as cause for concern.

"The public needs to know"

“It’s a basic scientific requirement,” he told National Observer. “They should provide all the details on how they get the samples, how they analyze it and what the limits they should comply with are."

...continued in Part two