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How A Crude Oil Spill is Damaging Vulnerable Indigenous Land


How A Crude Oil Spill is Damaging Vulnerable Indigenous Land

by Justin Dubs

On Saturday, June 13, 2020, the Trans Mountain Pipeline in Abbotsford, British Columbia, dumped about 190,000 liters (that’s about 50,000 gallons!) of crude oil into the environment at its Sumas Pump Station.

According to the company, a faulty fitting on a small piece of piping caused the spill.  The extent of the spill was contained to the facility grounds, but the most worrying part is what is found below the ground here.

In an interview with CTV News, Chief Dalton Silver of the Sumas First Nation explained that the aquifer beneath the facility provides drinking water to his reservation. “‘With it being on kind of a swampy area, my big concern is seepage into the ground and I’m wondering if people are taking into account the cumulative effects of something like that,’ said Silver.”

This is not the first major oil spill that has occurred on Sumas First Nation land.  On July 15, 2005, there was a spill at the same facility, as the most recent spill.  A shift in the soil surrounding the facility caused a break in one of the pipes.  This caused 210,000 liters of crude oil to leak into the area around the building.

The oil reached a nearby creek, which carried the oil to surrounding wetlands.  The cleanup effort lasted for several years. A survey team, sent out by the owners of the pipeline, found the area to be fully restored to pre-spill conditions in 2012.

The First Nation worries about the future expansion plans of the pipeline.  The expansion would build more pipelines through the First Nation’s land, potentially causing more spills in the future.
According to the chief, there have been 4 spills in the last 15 years on the reservation.

The expansion would also have the pipeline cross over a sacred site of the Sumas First Nation people.

“[We] will do absolutely everything we can to prevent this from happening – an oil spill at Lightning Rock would be horrific for our people.” — Chief of SFN

What is the Environmental Impact of An Oil Spill?

As we have seen from previous accidents, oil spills have a devastating impact on the environment. Oil spills in the ocean (much like the BP spill in 2010) cause massive harm to local plant and animal life.

Oil does not mix with water, it forms a layer on the surface, slowly spreading out over time. This layer blocks out the sun from getting to plants and other creatures that produce food from the sun’s rays. 

This begins a disruption at the bottom of the food chain, sending a rippling effect to the top.  As the producers suffer from the lack of sunlight, so do the consumers relying on the producers for food.

Oil spills on land cause issues with the local ecosystem too. Oil seeps into the ground, making it toxic and hard for local plant life to grow. Similar to oil spills in water, this disrupts the food chain.

The oil also seeps into local streams, rivers, and groundwater, which is a big concern of the Sumas First Nation with the Trans Mountain Spill. Once the water and oil mix, it takes years to fix the damage. The groundwater below the June 13th oil spill is the primary source of drinking water for the First Nation people.  If oil made its way into this, the outcome would be devastating to the indigenous people.

What is the Effect on Humans?

There isn’t much knowledge about how exposure to oil affects humans. Even though spills are an unfortunate common thing in today’s world, there are still few studies that look into the effects.  

A study conducted on the people of the Ecuadorian Amazon has shown the damage being done to humans from contact with crude oil.  This area of the Amazon is known to have a large number of oil spills that spans decades.  Most of the spills in this area make the Deepwater Horizon spill look small.

“Studies of biomarkers have uncovered irreparable harm to humans exposed to oil and gas from spills. These effects are respiratory damage, liver damage, decreased immunity, increased cancer risk, reproductive damage and higher levels of some toxics (hydrocarbons and heavy metals).”

How Can You Help?

One of the best ways to prevent future oil spills is to reduce the demand for crude oil. One of the best ways to prevent future oil spills is to reduce the demand for crude oil.  We currently use oil for cars, airplanes, roads, heating, etc.

By switching to eco-friendly forms of power, such as wind or solar, you do your part in reducing dependence on oil.

Instead of driving to work or school, walk, ride a bike, take a bus, or carpool. If you do need to drive, drive a hybrid or electric vehicle. These small changes have a lasting impact on our world for us and for the future.

By reducing your dependence on oil and other fossil fuels, you lead the way to a cleaner and more sustainable environment. 

If you’re also a nature lover, and you want to keep up to date on current events, please follow our Ocean Blue Project Environmental News Blog. If you would like to help clean-up efforts of beaches and rivers, please consider volunteering at one of our Beach Cleanups.

Author Bio: Justin Dubs is a Pittsburgh-based writer and avid outdoorsman.

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