Historical spill exposed by shoreline erosion cleaned up in Tuktoyaktuk, N.W.T.
The Government of the Northwest Territories has cleaned up an old diesel spill in Tuktoyaktuk, by sending over 500 tonnes of hydrocarbon-contaminated soil away for treatment.
The territory said that the contaminated soil became exposed after erosion and storm surges disrupted the coastal area.
Though the department of Environment and Natural Resources (ENR) said the source of the spill remains unknown, the hamlet's SAO said that as Tuktoyaktuk's shorelines continue to erode, she expects more contaminated soil to become exposed.
"Anytime permafrost is collapsing and shorelines are collapsing and riverbanks are collapsing, you're going to expose all these contaminants," Tuktoyaktuk SAO Lucy Kuptana said.
"It's gonna happen more and more"
After a Tuktoyaktuk resident reported smelling fuel on the beach in August 2022, ENR inspected the site and engaged the department of Municipal and Community Affairs, which then began the process of assessment and clean-up.
ENR's spill report describes the site as being "near the Arctic Ocean coastline where the tourists park."
ENR said that the territory has spent $79,000 to remove the contaminated soil, stabilize the site to protect existing permafrost and ship the containers of contaminated soil from Tuktoyaktuk to Inuvik. There the materials will go to soil treatment facility KBL Environment Ltd.
An operations manager from the transportation company, E. Gruben's Transport Ltd., said the containers of contaminated soil are still in Tuktoyaktuk and will be hauled to Inuvik in the spring.
Sammy Gruben Jr. is a Tuktoyaktuk resident that lives across the street from the site.
"When they were cleaning it up, as soon as you walked out our door you could really smell that oil fuel," he said.
Gruben suspects the spill has to do with the hamlet's maintenance garage which is located by the spill site. He said he thinks the garage had a leaky tank and said he's not surprised that erosion exposed the fuel.
"It's eroding really bad there," he said of the beach area.
Kuptana acknowledged the spill could be from the hamlet's garage, or from a former power plant that she said used to sit on the site.
"When it's historic fuel spills, you don't really know who spilled that fuel," she said.
"I think the records go back to maybe the early '80s, but if we're talking about infrastructure that's from the 1950s and 60s, we probably don't have the records."
NTPC remediated two historic spills
Doug Prendergast, spokesperson for the Northwest Territories Power Corporation (NTPC), said that prior to 1988 — the year NTPC took over — the Northern Canada Power Commission owned the former power plant infrastructure.
Prendergast said NTPC is aware of two spills at the site of the former, federal owned, facility.
In 1984, he said there was a reported spill of 36,000 litres and in 1987 there was a spill of 203 litres.
Between 2003 and 2007, Prendergast said that NTPC remediated the site and that in 2008 ENR said the power corp's remediation met its environment guidelines.
A study commissioned by the Inuvialuit Regional Corporation in 2020 developed an inventory of drilling waste and sumps in the Inuvialuit Settlement Region (ISR).
The report states that there has been oil and gas exploration in the the ISR of the Northwest Territories since 1961 and that waste from that exploration and production has historically been deposited in sumps near drilled wells.
The study identified 172 sumps in the Mackenzie Delta, 41 on Arctic islands and seven on the mainland.
The report states that sumps were designed to encapsulate the waste within frozen permafrost, but warming temperatures may be contributing to "sump failures."
Kuptana said her community is thankful for the territory's quick response to remediate the site before freeze-up, but said there's still work to be done to mitigate permafrost thaw.
She said the hamlet's garage on the spill site is now right by the ocean, much closer to the water than it used to be.
"There used to be a good ten, 20, 30 feet [between the garage and the ocean] at one time, but now with everything eroding and permafrost collapsing, all that soil is going into the ocean," Kuptana said.
ENR said that there's no evidence that the spill is ongoing. A spokesperson for the department said ENR officers worked quickly to ensure a quick clean-up of the area of highest concern and that any further work necessary will be completed in the spring.