• Photograph by Creative Commons

Downstream disaster: the Husky Oil Spill and the social determinants of health

The upstream metaphor — for a better way to think about maintaining a healthy society — may never ring more true than it does right now in Saskatchewan.

Communities that rely on the North Saskatchewan River for their water supply have been forced to declare a state of emergency after over 200,000 litres of oil spilled into the river due to a Husky Energy oil pipeline rupture.  The rupture occurred near Maidstone, Saskatchewan approximately 300 metres from the river’s edge.  The drinking water supply of nearly 70,000 people has been compromised by the oil spill, and the spill’s impacts now stretch over a 500 kilometre stretch of the river that extends all the way to Codette Lake.

The state of the spill:

It's too early to determine all the impacts of this spill.  Results of water and sediment testing are expected to be released later this week.  However, several observations can be made with confidence. 

Initial spill reporting and response was inadequate.  There was a delay of many hours between the time this spill occurred on July 21st and the time it was discovered. Making matters worse, Husky Energy and the Ministry of Environment failed to act quickly enough to get spilled oil off the surface in the first few days after the spill.  Every litre of oil spilled will have by now contaminated hundreds of thousands of litres of water. 

"Upstream solutions [are] necessary to help mitigate the impacts."

Prince Albert and North Battleford have faced significant upfront costs to arrange for alternative sources of clean water.  Prince Albert residents and businesses were especially vulnerable because they rely on the North Saskatchewan River entirely for their water supply.  The City of Prince Albert was forced to install temporary water lines to the city from the South Saskatchewan River and the Little Red River, as well as falling back on use of its storm retention pond. 

At the time of writing, residents in several smaller communities are still struggling with drinking water arrangements and alternate ways of meeting their other water needs. These communities include the Rural Municipality of Prince Albert, the Rural Municipality of Buckland and Muskoday First Nation.

"The North Saskatchewan River oil spill has been especially difficult for Aboriginal communities."

One week after the spill, Husky Energy and the Ministry of Environment had yet to release to the public any details on the chemical makeup of the heavy crude and diluent in the spill.  We can be confident, however, that the crude will contain dozens of toxic or carcinogenic chemicals including benzene, ethyl benzene, toluene and xylenes.

How it hurts health:

While Husky Energy and the Saskatchewan Ministry of Environment work to remediate the waterways, there are health-related implications policy-makers must consider, and upstream solutions that are necessary to help mitigate the impacts.

The National Collaborating Centre for Environmental Health released in 2014 a review of the documented health impacts relating to oil spills in response to the increasing interest in new pipeline construction across Canada. Their findings suggest that there can be many potential short- and long-term detrimental physical, psychological and social impacts on the communities affected.

"The overall mental and social effects of a serious oil spill can be both wide-spread and long-term."

Those immediately exposed to the oil, primarily clean-up workers, need to be protected. Acute exposure to large quantities of oil is associated with headaches, respiratory effects, gastrointestinal symptoms and throat and eye irritation. Symptoms may persist for many months or even years afterwards. Chronic low-dose environmental exposure to residents, through the wind for example, has also proven to be dangerous, especially for vulnerable populations such as children, the elderly, and those with pre-existing health conditions.

An oil spill can also be mentally devastating to entire communities.  For instance, the North Saskatchewan River oil spill has been especially difficult for Aboriginal communities along the river, as the contamination violates their cultural and spiritual reverence for water, and has killed or sickened wildlife on which they rely. If pollution levels are found to be serious in important sports fishery lakes such as Codette Lake and Tobin Lake, there could be financial and social damage to families and businesses in already cash-strapped towns and rural communities.

The mental and social effects of a serious oil spill can be both wide-spread and long-term, as events in the past have shown that citizens in affected communities are made vulnerable to a greater risk for post-traumatic stress, depression and anxiety. There is also the obvious stress for rural residents of not having basic water access, especially difficult for those without ready access to transportation.

The way forward:

This spill is a reminder that oil is a dangerous commodity that must be transported with extreme care.  As bad as it is, it could have been much worse.  Had it occurred in winter, it would have been impossible to try to contain or clean up the oil as it flowed down river under the ice.  Had it occurred on the North Saskatchewan River west of Edmonton, it’s highly unlikely the City of Edmonton and surrounding municipalities would have been able to quickly arrange an alternative source of treated water supply for one million people. 

"Pipeline placement decisions need to be informed by Aboriginal communities and all impacted rural residents to ensure a transparent, cooperative process."

Pipeline safety is critical. Every new oil pipeline that runs across or near an important water body should be subject to an environmental impact assessment, a measure that currently isn’t required in Saskatchewan.  The Saskatchewan government needs to ensure regular inspection of the oil pipeline system in the province.   It currently has an inadequate number of inspectors for the task at hand. Stricter design, construction, maintenance and inspection standards need to be set for oil pipelines that cross rivers or run adjacent to lakes, particularly within a kilometre of a water body.  

It’s also time to ask hard questions about to what degree we should be building new interprovincial pipelines in Canada that are geared at moving heavy crude and bitumen for export. Clearly the risks of such oil pipelines extend well beyond their serious climate change consequences. Municipal drinking water supplies and Canada’s precious clean water resource are also put at risk by such projects. If pipelines do proceed, pipeline placement decisions need to be informed by Aboriginal communities and all impacted rural residents to ensure a transparent, cooperative process.

When spills do happen, social and financial supports should be put in place to help alleviate the burden that communities will face. This involves making considerations for the populations most vulnerable to environmental and social disruption of this magnitude. It’s imperative that we prevent spills to the greatest degree possible, and if they do occur take these events seriously enough to be able to act quickly, think long-term, and help build resiliency in our communities.

Working upstream means being smart about preventing health and environmental disasters. We cannot forget that the health of the environment is inextricably linked to our physical, mental and spiritual health, that government is responsible for the well-being of communities, and that long-term support requires consideration of the social determinants of health.




thilina_head.jpgThilina Bandara is a PhD Student of Community and Population Health Sciences at the University of Saskatchewan and a Board Member at Upstream.



Peter Prebble is Director of Environmental Policy with the Saskatchewan Environmental Society.


* Information presented here up to date as of 1 August 2016.

Showing 1 reaction

  • Northern
    commented 2016-08-05 10:31:28 -0600
    Oil spills lead to more oil used to fuel emergency response and manufacture more water bottles. A vicious circle in the pursuit of clean water. How can we think outside the circle?
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