Cleanup of historic oil spill in Inuvik underway, source still unknown

A spill from years ago was recently discovered near the Northwest Territories Power Corporation property in Inuvik, N.W.T. (Karli Zschogner/CBC - image credit)
A spill from years ago was recently discovered near the Northwest Territories Power Corporation property in Inuvik, N.W.T. (Karli Zschogner/CBC - image credit)

There's an iridescent shine on the wet pavement near the foot of the Northwest Territories Power Corporation property along the Mackenzie River.

It comes from a historic oil spill that was only discovered last week. Now, it's being contained and cleaned up.

Doug Prendergast, the communications manager for the Northwest Territories Power Corp. (NTPC), said the company was quick to act. As soon as evidence of a spill was discovered along the river by River Road, and reported via the NWT 24-Hour Spill Report Line on July 21, a team was sent over to deal with it.

"We were made aware of it, we sent to people to take a look. They definitely confirmed that there was an oil sheen," Prendergast said.

"Regardless of where it came from, because obviously right at the beginning, there was no sense of what the source was, we knew there hadn't been an active spill."

Karli Zschogner/CBC
Karli Zschogner/CBC

It isn't clear the exact source of the spill is, Prendergast said.

While there are other properties in the area, he said the power corporation opted to take the lead on cleanup because the company's employees are trained in spill response, and they have the necessary equipment.

Recently, a large yellow bucket, labelled "spill kit" was set up nearby, along with what were once white absorbent pads. Some absorbent hydrocarbon booms were also installed, while sandbags have been built around what appears to be the worst of the sheen.

The sandbags may also help in the investigation as to the source of the old spill.

Prendergast said it's possible the oil came from an old pipe used to offload oil from barges in the 1970s and '80s.

"A lot of that pipe was removed, further away from the river, but there may have been a section that was kept in place and capped," he said.

Prendergast said because the river is unusually high right now, the base of a concrete structure that contains some of that infrastructure is currently partially underwater.

"We think that may well have just caused some disturbance that's resulted in some of this legacy oil producing a sheen on the river."

Karli Zschogner/CBC
Karli Zschogner/CBC

Environment and Climate Change Canada said it is aware of the situation and is responding. It has also sent environmental enforcement officers to the site to collect samples and gather facts regarding the incident.

Prendergast said the government of the Northwest Territories is also aware of the incident.

Meantime, he said the company will continue to monitor the oil sheen to see whether it's getting worse or better. The company's environmental analyst went to Inuvik to further investigate.

"It is one of those interesting situations where, you know, because it is a legacy issue, there are a number of parties that were involved in the activities that likely contributed to the situation."