Alberta environmentalists and landowners are setting up an independent, anonymous tipline for people to report oil pipeline spills and ensure news of the leaks reaches the public.
"Part of the role of this line is to actually get this information out to the public," said Mike Hudema of Greenpeace, one of the two groups organizing the tipline. "We don't trust the government or companies to give the public accurate information."
Greenpeace and the Alberta Surface Rights Group are taking out web ads in four smaller Alberta newspapers this week to announce the start of the tipline. The newspapers — in Fort McMurray, St. Paul, Leduc and Peace River — are all in communities that have substantial energy infrastructure or have experienced recent spills.
The provincial government and its energy regulator already have environmental accident tiplines that respond to thousands of calls a year.
Alberta Environment's emergency hotline responded to more than 12,000 calls in the 2009-10 fiscal year, although the department is unable to break them down by cause. About 10 per cent of the calls were serious enough to be considered emergencies, said spokeswoman Jessica Potter.
"Every call is followed up," she said.
The hotline is staffed around the clock and tipsters can remain anonymous or leave their names. An emergency response team is available.
The Energy and Resources Conservation Board runs a similar tipline. It offers a toll-free number to its head office and nine field centres and staff are on call around the clock, said spokesman Bob Curran. Their office received 232 complaints in 2010 over oil and gas facilities. The board releases some information on complaints in its field surveillance reports.
"(Board) employees work hard to ensure that Albertans are aware they should call us with concerns about oil or gas operations throughout the province, and we will continue to do so," Mr. Curran said in an email.
Still, Albertans aren't aware enough that more than 600 pipeline releases of varying sizes happen every year, Mr. Hudema suggested
Ms. Potter said the new tipline could cause some confusion over who people should be reporting to and lead to a delayed response.
"There is a potential for confusion, but we just want to remind people that the primary phone number to use if you see an incident of concern is the Alberta Environment hotline."
Mr. Hudema said any calls to the new tipline will be passed along immediately to industry and government. Any information on the spill or leak as well as any pictures of the accident will be posted online.
"I don't think the other two tiplines really care about getting that information out to the public and letting the public know exactly what's going on in this province," he said.
He points out the two most recent significant spills were spotted by people in the area, not by the companies involved.
Public pressure can improve the quality of spill remediation, Mr. Hudema said.
"Often, when the government and companies know there is some type of public watchdog, the cleanup efforts are much better and much more efficient."
There have been three pipeline spills in Alberta in less than two months.
On June 7, up to 475,000 litres of oil leaked from an unused pipeline into the Red Deer River near Sundre, the source of drinking water for many central Alberta communities, including the city of Red Deer. Pipeline owner Plains Midstream has mobilized hundreds of workers as well as specialized equipment to clean up the mess.
The following week, a leaky gasket at a pumping station released 230,000 litres of oil near Elk Lake in northeastern Alberta. The pumping station has reopened.
And in late May, 3.5 million litres of oil and salt water leaked into muskeg about 20 kilometres southeast of the northern community of Rainbow Lake.