Intentional spill has farmer looking for new enforcement rules

Carlyle Jorgensen was driving down a gravel road near his farm by Cromer, Man., last winter when he detected the bitter odour of petroleum.

A short distance away Jorgensen discovered an oil spill in the ditch alongside the road. After taking a close look at the spill of oil and saltwater, Jorgensen realized it was no accident.

“You (could) see where the valve was cracked …and they drove along the edge of the ditch,” Jorgensen said. “You could see the truck tracks in the snow where the (tanker) truck drove along the edge of the ditch for 1,000 feet or so.”

Jorgensen, who shared his story about the spill at a recent Keystone Agricultural Producers meeting in Portage la Prairie, Man., told KAP leaders about the incident and two other spills near his farm because the Manitoba government hasn’t cleaned up the environmental mess or disciplined the oil industry for the spill, even though he reported it in late February.

“The petroleum branch has done nothing with this spill,” he said in an email. “The branch deliberately left this spill, of (my guess) 20 or 30 barrels, during spring thaw and allowed it to wash into the Pipestone Creek as the snow melted.”

The spill in the ditch was oil and saltwater, said Jorgensen, who took photos of the site. The porous underground rocks that contain oil and gas also contain saltwater, which comes to the surface when wells are drilled. Oil companies are supposed to inject the wastewater, the mixture of saltwater and petroleum, into a disposal well that traps the byproduct underground.

Whoever spilled the saltwater and oil into the ditch did so with a disposal site nearby, Jorgensen said.

“This spill is a quarter mile from the biggest disposal well in the province.”

He said companies pay a fee to use a disposal well, which may explain why the oil was dumped in the ditch.

After Jorgensen told the province of the spill, government representatives said they couldn’t prove who dumped the oil and saltwater in the ditch, so no one was penalized for the infraction.

According to Jorgensen, the spill and the lack of government action represents a larger issue in southwestern Manitoba’s oil patch. Provincial officials are reluctant to crack down on oil companies because the government needs the investment, jobs and tax revenue, he said.

As well, landowners in the region are reluctant to complain because they don’t want to lose a tidy income from surface and property rights, Jorgensen noted.

“Most farmers, who have had spills on their land, do not want to talk about it…. It’s the same with (the industry) not building leases properly and not reclaiming (land) properly. They (farmers) don’t want to say anything because then the oil companies will go somewhere else.”

From Jorgensen’s perspective, the petroleum branch, a division of the province’s energy and mines department, shouldn’t have a dual role. It’s impossible to promote Manitoba’s oil patch and also discipline companies that break the rules, he said.

“There needs to be a separate department policing this because the petroleum branch is for oil (development).”

Keith Gardner, a KAP district director in southwestern Manitoba, heard about the spill last winter and was surprised by the reckless behaviour. But as far as he knows this kind of spill is a rarity.

“In that situation, you’re dealing with somebody, or a company, that’s run amuck…. That is the only time I’ve heard of something that blatant going on.”

Yet, Gardner, who farms near Lenore, Man., and doesn’t have oil under his land, has heard complaints from landowners frustrated with the petroleum industry.

“The oil companies have a tendency to walk over everybody,” he said. “(Jorgensen) has come to us and our feeling on KAP is that… this needs to get looked into, to see how tight a relationship there is between the petroleum branch and (industry).”

Kevin Gabrielle, a member of the Manitoba Surface Rights Association, a group that lobbies for landowners with oil and gas surface leases on their property, said oil spills occur but it’s not a widespread problem in southwestern Manitoba.

“(We) haven’t had a lot of feedback on problems such as this. It’s an isolated thing but there could be more of them out there.”

The province, though, isn’t doing enough to enforce environmental and procedural regulations, said Gabrielle, who lives in Virden, Man.

“It’s fair to say that the branch doesn’t have enough inspectors right now,” he said.

“Ask them (the petroleum branch) how many wells are being drilled in the last few years (compared) to five years ago. And ask them how many more people they have on the ground…. I think a lot of things are happening out there without the oversight that there should be, possibly.”

The Western Producer contacted the province for this story but the petroleum branch didn’t respond in time for this issue’s deadline.

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