WISE researchers study Red Deer River spill

A recent pipeline rupture in the Red Deer River might have relatively short term environmental damage, but a larger concern is the vast number of older pipeline locations at river crossings and their vulnerability to floods, according to a leading expert in floodplain and river bank ecosystems.

Dr. Stewart Rood, a University of Lethbridge Environmental Science researcher and member of the Water Institute for Sustainable Environments, has already started on a study of the Red Deer River oil spill, looking at more than 30 km of river shoreline downstream from the spill site.

He and his colleagues are looking for opportunities to learn from this particular spill, and then turn their research findings into a set of guidelines for developing oil pipelines near, over or under waterways.

"River crossings are especially prone to pipeline breaks, since the banks are commonly eroded and stream channels shift, especially during flood events," says Rood. "While this specific pipeline break and oil spill was unfortunate, a study opportunity arises and this should be instructive relative to floodplain processes and environmental vulnerability."

The break, which occurred last week near Sundre, Alberta, northwest of Calgary, resulted in the release of up to an estimated half-million liters of light sour crude oil into the Red Deer River.

The release coincided with flood flows of the river and consequently the floating oil wove through the riparian (or streamside) vegetation, leaving what Rood describes as a 'bathtub ring' of oil deposits on the floodplain plants (photographs attached).

Despite decades of pipeline construction and occasional ruptures, Rood's team found there has been remarkably little scientific study on the environmental impacts of oil spills on river floodplains. Checking back almost 50 years the researchers found only 10 relevant journal papers.

"There have been studies on fish but very little on floodplain ecosystems," says Rood. "Since river floods can damage pipelines, we need to better understand how vulnerable floodplains are, and how quickly or slowly they'll recover.'

He added that pipeline breaks are more common than people think, and occur across the province, often in remote locations.

"In its 2010 field surveillance report, the industry-funded Energy Resources Conservation Board recorded 687 pipeline failures across the province, but most of these would have been very minor" says Rood.

Their new study sites have been positioned ('tagged' through GPS monitoring) at numerous locations within the spill zone to enable the detailed monitoring of the consequence of the oil spill on the trees and vegetation along the banks of the river (called the riparian zone).

As well, there will also be coordinated study of invertebrates in the shoreline zone, as well as investigation of impacts on fish.

The study group involves Rood and two colleagues, Dr. Alice Hontela and Dr. Joseph Rasmussen, all senior U of L researchers who have already been studying the Red Deer River and other rivers of southern Alberta for more than 25 years.

Numerous undergraduate and graduate students will also be involved in the research.

This brings world-class -- and independent -- expertise in river and floodplain ecology and aquatic toxicology to bear on the Red Deer River spill, and sets the stage for future projects.

Rood says he has communicated with pipeline owner Plains Midstream about the study project.

"Their representatives were pleased we were conducting this research independently, and have expressed a willingness to share technical data with us."