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Officials investigating spill in northwest Alberta

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A huge spill has released 22,000 barrels of oil and water into muskeg in the far northwest of Alberta.

The spill ranks among the largest in North America in recent years, a period that has seen a series of high-profile accidents that have undermined the energy industry's safety record. The Enbridge Inc. pipeline rupture that leaked oil near Michigan's Kalamazoo River, for example, spilled an estimated 19,500 barrels.

The most recent spill was discovered May 19 emanating from pipe belonging to Pace Oil & Gas Ltd. , a small energy company that produces about 15,000 barrels a day, roughly half of that oil.

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The spill has yet to be contained, although "we're very close," Pace chief executive Fred Woods said in an interview Wednesday.

The spill took place roughly 20 kilometres southeast of Rainbow Lake, which is 165 km south of the Northwest Territories border. It came from above-ground piping connecting an underground pipeline to a well used for wastewater injection. The pipe was carrying an emulsion that was roughly 70 per cent water and 30 per cent oil.

As with many recent pipeline accidents, Calgary-based Pace did not detect a problem, but was informed of the leak by another company after the spill was spotted from an aircraft. The spill, which killed one duck, now covers 4.3 hectares. Mr. Woods declined comment on how long it was leaking before detection.

The company is now setting up a 50-person camp near the spill site, and has hired contract workers to clean it up. By Monday, it had recovered some 3,700 barrels of emulsion. It's unclear how long it will take to clean up. Alberta's Energy Resources Conservation Board is investigating the spill.

The province has seen a spate of recent leaks. Last year, for example, the 220,000 barrel-a-day Rainbow pipeline belonging to Plains All America Pipeline L.P., spilled 28,000 barrels in northern Alberta.

The province has also seen a series of accidents on smaller gathering and distribution pipelines, which are typically run by oil and gas companies and may not receive the safety scrutiny applied to longer-haul pipes such as Rainbow. On May 8, a farmer discovered a spill of a very light oil, called condensate, in a field in central Alberta. That oil had leaked from an AltaGas Ltd. pipe delivering raw natural gas to a processing plant.

Last June, 500 barrels of oily product spilled from a pipe gathering system run by Pengrowth Energy Corp.

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The water injection well connected to the leaking Pace pipe was used to dispose of waste.

Editor's note: This story has been updated to clarify the location of the spill, which came from above-ground piping rather than an underground pipe.

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