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Can Alberta Sands oil be safely shipped on the St. Lawrence?

February 10th, 2015 | Posted by Lee

By Julia Botero                                                                                                                                         Published on February 10, 2015 by North Country Public Radio

Crude oil from the Midwest is moved by pipeline and rail across the United States and through parts of New York’s North Country. Some companies are interested in shipping oil to East Coast refineries by way of the St. Lawrence River.

At a conference organized last weekend by the Thousand Islands-based group, Save the River, environmentalists voiced concern over the potential of a catastrophic oil spill.

The St. Lawrence River is frozen solid right now, but when spring arrives tankers will begin their slow journey up and down the waterway. The tankers carry huge amounts of heavy raw materials like grain, iron, and coal to ports in the United States and Canada. Only a few shipments of crude oil from Alberta Sands in Canada and the Bakken in North Dakota have come through the seaway, but environmentalists and state official are concerned more will come. Lee Willbanks, director of Save the River said, “This is a huge issue because there is a lot of oil in different forms being extracted in the Midwest in our country and in Alberta Canada. And right now there is more oil coming out of the ground then has a conduit to a refinery.”

Gary McCullough, with the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation said, “Fundamentally my concern is that spills on the St. Lawrence River would be extremely challenging to clean up.” Mcllouch said that is because the river’s current is really strong. “The oil will move on the water faster than we have the ability to contain it. If you lost a large amount of oil on Alexandria Bay, that oil has already transversed to Massena.”

McCullough mentioned the Nepco spill of 1976. A massive barge carrying thick motor oil ran aground and spilled 500,000 gallons. “You can still see oil strips on rocks up in Ogdensburg, Lisbon area,” he said.

McCullough said much of that oil floated. The oil from the Tar Sands, on the other hand, is much heavier and may not float. Oil that sinks causes more damage because it is almost impossible to completely remove from a river floor. Emma Lui, with the Council of Canadians, said the company Suncor has already shipped Alberta Tar Sands oil along the River this past fall. Lui said, “The shipments that happen with Suncor really set a precedent for other shipments to happen.”

Lui said her organization released a study that found the cost to clean up just 10 percent of the oil from a Suncor tanker would be more than the Canadian government can afford. “We are not prepared nationally and locally — the mayors in the communities aren’t prepared either and if we aren’t prepared we should be doing this.“

Lee Willbanks said talking about the worst case scenarios when it comes to shipping oil can, at the very least, make those in charge think before they act. “It is really shame on us if we as a community don’t demand this discussion and have it in every level of government before we ship this,” he said.

The current low price of oil means shippers aren’t moving much, but that could change by the time the seaway reopens for navigation in March.

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