Beverly Boe and her teenaged son Jesse carry the plates and tall red cups they’ve brought from home to the KFC counter. “No plastic, please,” says Boe, just to be sure. The clerk, in turn, hands Boe her plate with the mashed potatoes and gravy encased in their usual styrofoam, squished down with a plastic lid.
“I think you’ve missed the point,” Boe says calmly.
Still committed to the cause, Jesse tweets out pictures of their attempt to avoid oil-based products like plastic. Boe celebrates the effort on Facebook.
“Hope you walked and didn’t drive your car,” someone comments, snarkily.
Boe fires back: “Can I walk around naked then? Because even our clothing is made using oil.”
There aren’t many people like Boe in Prince Albert, Saskatchewan. The former mill city of thirty-five thousand in central Saskatchewan is known as the province’s resource-rich “Gateway to the North.” It’s an extractive industry hotspot, where boreal forests sit on top of fields of kimberlite, the kind of rock that makes a geologist’s eyes gleam for its likeliness to harbour diamonds. To the north lies the Athabasca basin, home of the world’s highest-grade uranium. A three-hour drive west sits the Mannville Formation, once described by Pipeline News as the “bread and butter” of heavy crude oil.
The province that gave Canada universal health care has swung right, forming the bedrock of Canada’s anti-carbon-pricing movement. Former Premier Brad Wall and his successor, Scott Moe, have led the conservative Saskatchewan Party to a series of historic landslide victories, earning some of Canada’s highest voter approval ratings despite turbulent times for resource sectors.
Tired of watching a steady drain of young workers and cash-strapped farmers migrate to Alberta’s oil sands, Wall swept into power in 2007 on a mission to rouse an oil and gas industry bonanza of his own. During his tenure, Saskatchewan was one of the largest oil-producing jurisdictions in North America. In Wall’s first year in office, the number of barrels of crude drawn from the province’s piece of the Bakken region—which it shares with North Dakota—grew from five million to over fifteen million, helping hurtle Saskatchewan from disgraceful “have-not” to hard-working “have.”
Needless to say, it’s about as tough a place as there is in Canada to come forward as an environmental activist. As one of Boe’s friends puts it, “We are in the conservative buckle in the conservative belt.”
On the afternoon of July 20, 2016, this belt became a poster child for environmental disaster. Nearly a quarter-million litres of heavy crude oil and its arsenal of toxic lubricants spewed from a pipeline owned by Calgary-based Husky Energy near and into the North Saskatchewan River, part of a tributary system that feeds tens of thousands of people, livestock and wildlife, fueling the bread baskets of the three prairie provinces.
Over the following days, a visible plume of oil, gunk and foam floated by and enveloped the delta. Three cities along the river, plus several rural communities and a series of Treaty 6 First Nations—a total of roughly seventy thousand residents—called local states of emergency and shuttered water intakes. As they scrambled to find alternate sources of water, some were forced to haul in water by truck, like the town of Melfort, which parked a truck by city hall and dispersed water in individual containers. Water restrictions followed, with residents of Prince Albert told to minimize flushing and showers, facing a $1,400 penalty for wasting water. It would be nearly two months before the provincial water agency green-lighted the river for use.
But in the early days of the spill, the details were unclear: its cause and the precise location where it started, not to mention its duration and what the long-term effects would be on fish and human health.
Many of these questions persisted until nearly a year later, when—the morning after budget day in 2017, amidst a mountain of other news—the government quietly announced the completion of its investigation into the spill. The full investigation was not made public until more than two years later, in July 2019.
In 2016, in the absence of more than piecemeal updates, rumours swirled. But as the weeks went by, with alternate sources of water secured, summer life largely carried on. The fury of initial news coverage began to wind down. With the daily lives of most residents so far removed from the life of the river, fragmented updates weren’t enough to keep the spill front and centre. Out of sight, out of mind. Only the most dedicated skeptics sought to fill in the gaps.
Boe and Jesse live, with a Chihuahua rescue dog named Presley and a cat named Shamus, in an unassuming bungalow beside a park in the West Flat neighbourhood of Prince Albert. Their deck—what Boe calls her “spot”—faces the wide, lazy North Saskatchewan River delta and, at the time of the spill, a lone beaver who was living on the opposite bank. Boe is Indigenous and a lively storyteller, just like her grandfather, who spent most of his life in a community an hour or so to the southeast of Prince Albert; she has grey-blue eyes and a moon-shaped face, tranquil complements to an atomic internal energy.
As the city of Prince Albert shuttered its water intake, Boe’s neighbouring park became ground zero for one of the city’s emergency water supplies. A storm reservoir graced by a torrential rainfall lies just behind her house. The pump moving the stormwater to the treatment plant began screaming like a turbo jet landing in her backyard.
While sitting at home one night, Boe heard sirens. Jesse was out chasing Pokémon, so she jumped up and ran outside. She saw a truck barreling through the park and overtop of the heavy-duty hose used as a temporary water line. As the police officer rolled up behind the truck, he roared, “‘What the fuck is wrong with you—that’s the water fucking line! You’re under arrest. Get in the vehicle now!’”
“If the cop is this upset at this guy,” Boe remembers thinking, “this is bad. This is real bad.” Then she went to the river. Her eyes started to burn.
Hundreds of miles away, Frances Buchan was camped beside the Assiniboine River in southern Manitoba when a friend messaged, “You better bring some water back with you.” It was the day after the spill.
Buchan is a sixty-five-year-old tutor in basic education and a friend of Boe’s. The two met decades ago at an International Women’s Day march and they’ve been kindred “fish out of water” ever since. Though not Indigenous, Buchan also has an affinity for the North Saskatchewan River and the creatures that live from it. And, like Boe, she shrugs off the term “environmentalist.” It’s a dirty word that carries a lot of baggage in Prince Albert. That’s why Buchan used an alias on Facebook—so she could post about environmental issues. “I had enough people kind of shaking their heads when they looked at me,” she says.
Buchan has another reason to be online frequently. She suffers from serious allergies that force her to be a reluctant “hermit” much of the time. Staying online has kept her connected to the world, but it’s also given her some skills: how to dig for information, following trails to their end.
She had read enough about bitumen over the years to feel a sense of impending doom. Crude, and the chemicals added to help it slide through pipelines, doesn’t easily evaporate or dissolve in water like some other types of fossil fuels; that means the carcinogenic chemicals can sink and linger. But if anyone experienced the flu-like symptoms that can come from drinking water laced with hydrocarbons, Buchan understood, it would be near-impossible to prove cause and effect.
So, once home from camping, she went to work on what she does best: decoding everything about the disaster she could get her eyes on.
There was hardly any information easily available, save for a few sentence-long updates on the water agency’s and Husky Energy’s websites—but what Buchan found was unnerving. Local media reported that the booms weren’t working well, since high water levels were lifting oil over them.
A dig into pipeline records showed that the pipeline that had burst, then nineteen years old, had just resumed flow following an expansion that was exempt from environmental assessment.
Husky and the provincial government had commissioned a unified command force to clean up the spill, and one of its members, Paul Nony of the Centre for Toxicology and Environmental Health, assured residents the water tested clean. But Buchan discovered in old news reports that Nony’s company, which was hired by oil giant BP to study the Gulf of Mexico spill in 2010, had been harshly criticized for seeming to downplay pollution on behalf of corporate clients. “We all need to search for the truth,” Buchan wrote on Facebook. “The media hasn’t connected these dots ...YET!” The National Observer published an article about the same concern two and a half weeks later.
Those concerns aside, the updates on the testing were incredibly vague, nearly devoid of hard facts, recalls Tim Jardine, a toxicologist at the University of Saskatchewan who specializes in rivers. He wanted to know, for example, what compounds had been found in the water, and what exactly was being tested. In the first few days after the spill, it was clear some animals were dying—beavers, muskrats and birds, for example—but no one was releasing a precise mortality count. “It was very much an ‘it’s ok, we’ve got this’ kind of thing.”
More than that, the information that was being released seemed obfuscated, Buchan noticed. The company first said it discovered the leak at 8 PM on July 20 and reported it fourteen hours later. Later that week, the company said it discovered the leak the morning of July 21 and reported it thirty minutes later. The exact location of the spill was unclear—media said it was “upstream from Maidstone,” a town around thirty kilometres from the river.
Spencer Sterritt, who was then a reporter for the local media outlet, paNOW, says that when faced with requests for information, Husky officials were “reticent to the point of being obtuse and negligent.” He reported that in one media conference call a week after the spill, Husky vice president Al Pate parroted, “There’s going to be a full and comprehensive investigation” sixteen times in response to questions.
In a statement to Maisonneuve, Husky said its communications efforts included posting updates on the company website, speaking directly with the affected communities and First Nations and placing public ads telling people how to seek compensation. Over time, it did explain the technicalities of its testing, Husky says. Still, “we understand that in some cases people and media wanted answers sooner than we could provide, but formal investigations needed to be undertaken and testing protocols had to be followed and the results properly analyzed.”
Politicians seemed unbothered. Premier Brad Wall waited a full week after the spill to give in-depth remarks about it. Even the opposition was fairly quiet, with local NDP MLA Nicole Rancourt largely mum (though the Saskatchewan NDP as a whole did make a statement). Prince Albert Mayor Greg Dionne pulled fewer punches, publicly challenging Husky’s downplaying of the event, but he still shied away from publicly connecting the delayed spill response to broader governance issues.
Those issues were now on Buchan’s radar, after she learned of research by University of Regina professor Emily Eaton into the effects of decades-long cutbacks to the government agencies tasked with monitoring the oil and gas industry. Many of these problems had also been outlined by the provincial auditor general in 2012. The auditor had slammed the government for not abiding by pipeline safety requirements outlined in law, warning that “failure to regulate pipelines effectively could harm people or the environment.”
“I don’t call it a spill,” says Buchan. “To me, you spill your coffee or your milk. This is the contamination of at least five hundred kilometres of river. Every community has had their quality of life changed, maybe forever. This is not a small ‘oops.’”
But to many, it was small; according to Sterritt, most people in Prince Albert followed the leaders’ example, seeming not to care that much. Life didn’t grind to a halt. Some people even thought the sheen on the river looked cool.
Buchan began posting short excerpts of her discoveries and her suspicions (“because people don’t read”) to Facebook pages that had emerged in response to the spill. She built timelines and maps—did the leak start nearer to Maidstone or Paynton?—and shared them. Her links, excerpts and screenshots, though imperfect, served as the most consistent and analytical public feed of information about the disaster.
A loosely organized group of concerned citizens grew, mostly through Facebook, and its members began asking for fundraising support, including from Idle No More, the Indigenous rights movement that many thought had gone quiet. The hashtag #IdleNoMore was first used in 2012 by a group of Indigenous and non-Indigenous women raising awareness about Indigenous rights violations, especially legislation that removed most lakes and rivers from protection under the Navigable Waters Act.
By the time of the Husky spill, the network’s roots ran deep. Soon other groups joined and brought funding with them, including the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs, the Council of Canadians and the Prairie chapter of the Public Service Alliance.
Someone put forward the name Ricardo Segovia. He’s a hydrogeologist who had independently monitored cleanup efforts at one of the largest mine-waste spills in Canadian history, BC’s Mount Polley mine tailings dam breach in 2014, at the request of members of Secwépemc Nation. Segovia had been filmed describing his findings, and after it was posted online, the video gained traction.
The Saskatchewan group agreed to hire Segovia and a small team to study the Husky spill. No matter the results, they agreed, they would release them fully to the public.
Segovia works at US-based E-Tech International, a scientific non-profit. It was founded by an environmental journalist who was himself affected by industrial contamination from refineries on the US-Mexico border and realized that most communities facing such problems had no access to independent information. The nonprofit now advises and trains communities affected by all kinds of environmental damage.
His work has taken him to disasters plaguing the deltas of the Quechua peoples of Peru and the Shuar peoples of Ecuador. This, in turn, spawned an offshoot organization in Canada called Resurgence International, which Segovia leads. Originally from El Salvador, Segovia says having witnessed bad behaviour from extractive industries, he studied engineering in order to “help people defend themselves.”
Evidence is core to the strategy of many citizens’ groups for a reason. It’s easy to be discredited once pegged an activist or environmentalist. But when you carry hard scientific evidence, it’s harder to argue—especially when reports are written in plain language and include visual evidence like photos and videos, all published to social media. “We never publish anything that we can’t back up technically,” Segovia says.
The grassroots group arranged accommodations for Segovia and his small team as they travelled along the river. On September 2, before any investigation or detailed report about the spill was public, E-Tech released his findings. “The delayed response to the spill was a lost opportunity,” the report said, to recover oil from the surface of the water and prevent it from sinking deep into the river bed. Had Husky acted swiftly, “the spill would have been contained within a few kilometres of the pipeline break,” never reaching most neighbouring communities.
And though the water may begin to test clean, Segovia warned, carcinogenic chemicals latent in the sediment would, in the turbidity of storms and thaws of spring, release and recontaminate. The report acknowledged that little was known about Husky’s lab tests and cleanup strategy. But Segovia had concluded that Husky was only testing river water and not sediment, and therefore, he said, ignoring a crucial duty. Like the Kalamazoo spill in Michigan, one of the largest inland oil spills in history, which expelled three million litres of crude into the Kalamazoo River over the course of seventeen hours, remediation would take years, Segovia wrote.
Husky responded, saying Segovia made “basic errors” and insisting that at least 1,300 samples of sediment had been taken (to be fair to Segovia, it did turn out that sediment was being sampled, Jardine said, but “he wouldn’t have known that,” based on the information that had been released). “Our response was immediate upon discovery of the leak and was informed by the responsible provincial and federal regulators as well as the foremost scientists and experts in the field,” said a Husky Energy spokesperson in an emailed statement to media at the time. It also pointed out that the government water agency was doing its own analysis, independent of the company.
Still, with Segovia’s report as their armour, the small group of watchdogs went to battle in a bigger way: they went public.
On the eve of the spill’s two-month anniversary, they hosted a meeting in North Battleford—a two-hour drive east, closer to the burst pipe—at the public library, attended by around forty-five people. Organizing member Elizabeth Cline then wrote an op-ed, signing off with her personal phone number: “Anyone who wants to help as we move forward in raising awareness and lobbying government, or who just wants more information, can call me at…”
Buchan proposed a presentation with Segovia at Saskatchewan Polytechnic, the trades school where she tutored. Only four people showed up, but they carried on. Around fifty people, however, showed up to a presentation at the Prince Albert public library. Boe live-streamed the event, getting another hundred-odd views.
Buchan says this is not a bad turnout for what she calls a “pfffff kind of province” and a city that “doesn’t get behind things much” beyond sporting events and cancer fundraisers. I ask Buchan why it was hard for people to believe the damage was worse than the authorities were making it out to be. At the time, the water agency had determined the spill was nearly recovered. “People want to think that they can trust the government,” she says. Suggesting industry is causing harm is one thing, it seems. Suggesting government is doing the same is another.
Boe says when she invited someone who works at city hall to join the presentation, they said it would be a conflict of interest. “How is an independent assessment, from a company that is not associated to any oil company, pipeline company or government, going to be a conflict of interest?” she asks.
Still, she tells me, “there are thirty-five thousand people in this town.”
At the presentations, Segovia warned people about a nasty group of carcinogenic chemicals in diluted crude that are easily absorbed through the skin. He urged them to protect themselves with thick clothing and face masks. Buchan inquired with a local water filtration service about getting a carbon filter for her home tap. Even the salesman, whose job was to push water filters, told her, “for the amount of oil spilled, for the size of the river, he didn’t think it was a big deal,” Buchan recounts. “I think he thinks I’m crazy.”
If Buchan’s approach to activism is learn everything, Boe’s tactic is tell everyone. She talked about the disaster with the Canada Revenue Agency attendant in Ontario over the phone, the grocery store clerk, her Facebook friends. She was used to the responses: “There’s always been foam in the river,” or, “Oh, the government said the river water is fine.” Boe developed a standard comeback: “I’ll send you a bottle. Would you like to drink it?”
When a presentation was arranged at a high school in North Battleford, some students didn’t even know there had been a spill. Beyond the temporary closure of car washes, laundromats and water parks, life had carried on.
On September 16, the Saskatchewan Water Agency notified all residents that they could resume bathing, drinking and feeding their livestock from the North Saskatchewan River (“oil components detected...do not present unacceptable health risks”). Husky’s website reported that the spill at that point was 88 percent cleaned up. “Nature will often do a better job of recovery than we will,” a Saskatchewan government worker reportedly said in a meeting at the time. (The province now says that comment was likely referring only to some small portions of riverbed so sensitive that cleanup would harm more than help.)
Segovia maintained that 88 percent was an overestimate. But the “group of people that have taken action is very small, the group of people that are open to hearing about it but not interested in doing anything is larger, and the number of people that are complacent and don’t care is the largest,” lawyer Estelle Hjertaas, one of the group’s organizers, told me.
At a mostly Cree high school in North Battleford, Segovia again presented his findings. Here, the kids knew what had happened; their teachers, like the grassroots group, didn’t always trust the official version of events. Segovia taught them how to do low-tech monitoring of the spill—marking their exact locations with a cellphone or GPS, using a stick and stopwatch to monitor the speed of the river, writing observations in a notebook. Later, they held a drumming ceremony for the river.
Hundreds of kilometres downriver from the spill site, past the point where the North and South Saskatchewan rivers join, the river makes a sharp switch north. There, crayfish were turning up dead. About 1,800 members of the James Smith Cree Nation live on these banks, a traditional gathering place for regional First Nations. The community slogan reads, “As long as the sun shines, the grass grows and the river flows.”
But that August, Chief Wally Burns had ordered band members to stop their hunting, fishing and foraging for medicines and berries along the riverbank. Instead, women and kids scooped cappuccino-like foam and globs of tar from the spawning grounds of endangered sturgeon.
The community cleanup crew was dressed in shorts and T-shirts, some even bare feet, doing without the face masks, protective suits and goggles that remediation professionals wear. As the city of Prince Albert received its first $5 million payment from Husky for costs related to the spill, around when Segovia was doing his sampling, the First Nation decided to get its own information source, commissioning water testing from Calgary-based Robix Environmental Technologies, says Chief Burns. Though oil was clearly visible along the nation’s riverbanks, Husky said it couldn’t be sure it was their oil.
James Smith residents came up with their own oil samples, hoping to use them to check against the official testing. A week after the spill, the nation had even repurposed an unused building into a lab, storing samples in a freezer. Determined to maintain public pressure, they posted photos to Facebook and on their government website, creating a gallery dedicated to the spill.
Although the First Nation was engaged in talks with Husky about compensation, by the end of September it had spent tens of thousands of dollars out of pocket and its needs couldn’t wait. It launched an IndieGoGo fundraising campaign to help replenish contingency funds that had been drained to pay for consultants plus booms and fences to contain the contamination.
They raised just $843 out of a target $65,000, but in their view, the press coverage made up for it. In late September, Husky finally sent sniffer dogs to the community; they had been trained to track down Husky oil, and they found it. The company accepted the dogs’ findings and its higher-ups came for a meeting; tar-coated branches and other debris hauled from the riverbank lay on long tables in the room as evidence. Segovia attended, helping bolster the nation’s case. Husky agreed to pay about $140,000, Burns recalls, for the costs of its recovery efforts, just as it had to Prince Albert and North Battleford, though a fraction of the amount the cities had received at that point.
Many First Nations in Saskatchewan were feeling similarly uneasy trusting official information, Chief Burns says. Dozens of them had earlier joined forces to found their own knowledge hub on resource industries, the Saskatchewan First Nations Natural Resource Centre of Excellence. Now, they used it to conduct water testing; Red Pheasant First Nation sent samples of its sheens of oil to the centre to test, APTN reported.
Prince Albert, whose city manager complained loudly about Husky’s lack of scientific transparency, also did independent testing. It found the water was safe and hydrocarbon-free by early August.
Forty percent of Prince Albert’s residents are Indigenous. In the 1950s, an old army base on the outskirts of town was repurposed to become one of Canada’s largest residential schools. Today, the city has some of Saskatchewan’s highest rates of poverty and HIV infection. If you’re Indigenous in Saskatchewan, you’re thirty-three times more likely than your non-Indigenous neighbours to be incarcerated in one of Prince Albert’s three prisons.
Residents of Prince Albert—whether white or Indigenous—tend to stick to their own, locals told me. Geography doesn’t help either: Prince Albert and its surrounding communities and reserves are partitioned by long stretches of prairie highway. “To people in Regina, P.A. is the bush. For people in the north, P.A. is a racist town. There’s not a lot of solidarity,” Buchan says.
Indigenous people in many parts of Saskatchewan—in cities, towns and on reserve lands—maintained pessimism about the spill. Nancy Greyeyes lives in the town of Marcelin, an hour’s drive from Prince Albert. A forty-six-year-old grandmother of Cree, Ojibwe and Métis heritage, she walked nearly three thousand kilometres from Saskatoon to Ottawa in protest of the bills that sparked Idle No More. In 2016, as most Saskatchewans were hosting barbecues, Greyeyes called local leaders, even going to MP Ralph Goodale’s office in Regina, asking them to look at alternative oil-dispersing compounds they could keep on hand in the future. Many of the standard dispersants are heavy-duty cleaning solvents, and she had read they were harmful. (No one was interested.)
Boe had told me that once, standing by the river, an elder’s words from years earlier came flooding back: “That if we didn’t stop what we were doing, that there would be a time that the lakes and the rivers...would burn our skin.”
Another day that summer, Greyeyes and her granddaughter made their regular trip across the North Saskatchewan River, on the ferry bound for Beardy’s & Okemasis Willow Cree Nation. Before the ferry, they stopped to make prayers, give offerings and sing songs for the river, just like Greyeyes’s own mother used to do. This time, they were asking for forgiveness for the spill, “Because really, it’s all of us,” she said. “We can’t blame.” Her granddaughter took an offering of tobacco and put it on the riverbank.
“I get into the river, kookum?” she asked, addressing her grandma in Cree as she bent down to touch the water as they do when they say their prayers.
“No. Not today, baby,” Greyeyes said.
“Since I was a kid I’ve been told that the river would someday poison us,” she tells me. “My whole life, I’ve been told that. And in my life, to have to say that to my baby—what a devastating thing to have to say.”
A year later, two of Segovia’s predictions came true: an oil slick reappeared in the thaws of spring, and chemicals that sank into the riverbed were found to have persisted. Authorities, despite their assurances about Mother Nature’s cleaning, had planned to resume their remediation, and they did.
On June 12, 2019, just shy of the three-year anniversary of the spill, Husky pleaded guilty to three federal and provincial environmental charges for the accident, with fines totalling $3.82 million. A nineteen-month joint federal-provincial investigation had led to an agreed statement of facts: the pipeline was knowingly built through a “massive landslide,” which to engineers “appeared to be inactive.” They were wrong, and ground movement on July 20, 2016, caused the pipeline to buckle.
That, according to Segovia’s presentations three years earlier, is a common cause of pipeline incidents. The morning after the rupture, after a delay of roughly seventeen hours—a citizen walking over a bridge spotted the oil sheen and notified authorities—Husky’s operators closed the pipe’s valves and initiated an emergency response plan. An alarm system did go off throughout the delay, but Husky operators thought it was malfunctioning. The company formally reported the spill that afternoon.
The statement of facts confirmed that the last time the pipeline had been inspected by a worker, rather than machine, was 2009. Remote inspections in later years showed a “possible wrinkle” in the pipe and other possible signs of stress, but these red flags were not further investigated until after the spill.
“We are truly sorry it happened and have worked hard every day since to make things right. We recognize the event had significant impacts on communities along the river, both the cities and Indigenous communities,” Husky said in an emailed statement. “We know some groups remain angry with us and think we could have done better.”
After the guilty plea, I asked Buchan how she felt about it. “Part of it is ‘Ha! There. I was right,” she said. But, she says, she’s still angry that Husky only took the public’s need for information seriously when forced, leaving everyone in the dark. “I had to really, really dig to put together bits and pieces of information and start to see some kind of a picture,” she says.
Not that she got credit for that, either. “Nobody remembers that it was the crazy lady in the corner that was planting seeds.”
The group did plant seeds—there were signs all along that Segovia’s water sampling, and their decision to spread it as widely as possible, was slowly influencing authorities. When it was first released, the government refused to respond, citing its own ongoing investigation. But one candidate in Prince Albert’s 2016 mayoral race, Conrad Burns—he is Métis—mentioned Segovia’s report during his campaign. Media began to cover it. Afterwards, the government water agency shared some of its own sediment testing results for the first time, showing they were picking up many of the same compounds that Segovia had found, Jardine says.
Other politicians were forced to take note of citizens’ growing unease. North Battleford’s mayor attended Segovia’s presentation at the town library, where he was “put on the hot seat,” reported the Battleford News-Optimist. Premier Wall dropped nine points in popularity ratings over the summer (which had been politically difficult for several reasons, the spill among them), according to an Angus Reid poll. Over the next year, Segovia’s independent report earned reference in newspapers from the Saskatoon StarPhoenix to the Globe and Mail.
Reforms to Saskatchewan’s pipeline regulator were introduced a few months after the spill and passed in 2017, including implementing the auditor’s 2012 recommendations. (Although the regulator is still not arms-length from government.)
The provincial government also responded in a more immediate way. In early September, while the information war over water samples still raged, the Ministry of Energy and Resources sent staff out on foot to visually inspect pipelines that, like Husky’s, ran under rivers that supplied drinking water. Of the 8,900 pipelines that cross bodies of water in Saskatchewan, 125 were deemed high priority. It was an “interim measure” prompted by citizens’ vocal concerns, the province told the StarPhoenix.
Today, Husky, municipalities and the Saskatchewan government all say the spill’s damage is behind them and that human health risks are no longer a concern. Husky says it’s spent over $144 million on the spill. The corporation has changed its leak response protocol and geotechnical reviews of pipelines, including a requirement to shut down portions of a pipeline if the cause of an alarm isn’t identified in thirty minutes.
Now, when asked about Segovia, the province says it did indeed take his report into account. “The results of the independent monitoring report were considered as part of the overall evaluation of cleanup efforts, along with other available analytical information.” And, a spokesperson says, “we understand that there may be some citizens who would like the added reassurance of having a third party conduct the tests as well.”
A Husky spokesperson says the company facilitated one of the independent sampling efforts by sharing information with the First Nations’ Centre of Excellence and sending it some funding. But overall, when it comes to the spate of citizen-led science, he maintains that “we cannot speak to their methodology or testing procedures.”
Cary Wu, a sociology professor at York University in Toronto, studies trust in government. He says that south of the border, the trajectory is clear: Americans are losing that trust. There’s less data on Canadians, but the same seems to be true for us. One poll found that Canadians who said they trusted government dropped noticeably in the last three years, from 40 to 36 percent. Canadians have also come to trust “word-of-mouth information” more overall than “editorial content.”
Wu says, however, that Saskatchewanians have tended to keep this faith more than people in most other provinces.
Another fact came out of the same poll: the lowest trust levels are shared by two groups on the opposite ends of the political spectrum—Conservative and NDP voters. Wu points me to a recent American study from the Pew Research Center, showing that while Americans trust scientists overall, there’s a rift depending on political leanings. But they found this split was true only when it came to environmental scientists, at least among the three fields they studied—medicine, nutrition and the environment. Democrats are much more inclined than Republicans to believe environmental scientists are providing fair and accurate information, the study found. Fewer than two in ten Americans believe environmental research scientists are transparent about conflicts of interest with industry groups.
People on the left and right can both play into this trust rift, suggests David Tindall, a sociologist at the University of British Columbia. “What happens quite often is you eventually end up with these duelling scientists, where you have industry who has their own scientist and then maybe citizens’ groups or social movement groups who hire independent scientists,” he says, “and then sometimes it’s kind of difficult for the public to tell what’s going on.”
Dissent can be helpful, says Tim Jardine. He has no doubt that Segovia’s report “pushed the envelope” and forced authorities to be more transparent. And Jardine ended up winning a $224,000 government research grant to study fish health in the wake of the spill, writing in his proposal about the need for independent assessment. He was funded partly because of “the tension between the Segovia report and everything Husky was saying,” he believes. Next year, he plans to release a comparison of his findings and Husky’s.
“I guess that’s a fine line, isn’t it,” he says. “Some healthy skepticism is good, I think.” But, in the long term, it’s worrisome to imagine a world where “whether you’re believed as a scientist or not will come down to your sort of ideological position.”
Grassroots environmental groups seem to be gaining power, at least judging by the opposition to them. Counter-groups like Canada Action and Oil Sands Action have swept through social media channels, calling for more pipelines and fewer taxes. In a video posted to Facebook this July, Canada Action describes climate-change protesters as “foreign-funded noisemakers” trying to “make us disappear.”
Heavily redacted government documents released to the BC Civil Liberties Association in summer 2019, dubbed the “Protest Papers,” appear to confirm what has been long suspected: the Canadian Security Intelligence Service was surveilling environmental and Indigenous organizations in 2012, the era of the Northern Gateway pipeline protests and the birth of Idle No More, and allegedly sharing that information with the National Energy Board and oil companies.
In the months immediately after the Husky spill, Boe had travelled down to Standing Rock, North Dakota, the site of the high-profile blockade against a proposed pipeline. There, she shared the story of the spill and the citizens’ campaign.
Most of the affected First Nations maintain the cleanup of contamination is “inadequate and incomplete.” Chief Burns of James Smith Cree Nation says he still has to warn local kids about the risks of eating fish from the river. That nation and its neighbour, Cumberland House Cree Nation, have filed lawsuits over alleged damages, which have yet to be proven in court. James Smith continues to collect evidence in its freezer.
But the citizens’ group eventually lost steam, its members say. Boe is back at home by the river, where she still doesn’t drink the water. And after more than thirty years of advocacy, Buchan is laying low to care for her health.
New people have started digging for independent information around the Husky spill and its long-term effects. Patricia Elliott, a journalism professor at the University of Regina, has gone to court to gain access to documents related to inspection records and spill cleanup, after the province denied their release despite her successful appeal to the Freedom of Information and Privacy Commissioner. She launched a crowdfunding campaign in May to help cover the estimated $12,000 in legal fees. By pleading guilty to reduced charges, she says, “the company and the regulator escaped court scrutiny on larger questions of public safety and oversight mechanisms.”
Still, Buchan, even on her break, can’t help but follow headlines. In mid-August I got a Facebook message from her: “And yet again...” A riverbank had collapsed and forty thousand litres of crude from a Bonterra Energy Corp. pipeline had burst into a creek that feeds into the North Saskatchewan River, which flows into taps as far as Edmonton.
And Boe keeps talking to everyone she meets, including politicians, for whom she’s developed a new stock question: in the case of a power-grid failure, she asks, “where’s everybody getting their water from?”