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Enbridge pipeline leak spills oil in Alberta

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Environmental critics are calling for a major review of pipeline safety in Alberta after the province experienced a third large oil spill in a month.

About 230,000 litres of heavy crude oil spilled from a pumping station on an Enbridge Inc. pipeline onto farmland, Alberta's oil and gas regulator, the Energy Resources Conservation Board (ERCB), said Tuesday.

The regulator said 1,450 barrels of oil spilled from a pumping station on Enbridge's Athabasca pipeline, 24 kilometres from Elk Point, Alta., a small town roughly 200 kilometres northeast of Edmonton. That pipeline, briefly shut down but then restarted Tuesday, connects the oil sands with Hardisty, Canada's most important crude oil hub. The spill comes while crews are still working to clean up two other large leaks in Alberta, nearly 800,000 litres of oil from a Pace Oil & Gas Ltd. well about 200 kilometres from the Northwest Territories border, and 160,000 to 480,000 litres from a Plains Midstream Canada pipeline that ruptured beneath the Red Deer River.

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Environmental groups are now seizing on the confluence of accidents, which includes another massive spill from a Plains pipe last year, to call for an expansive look at pipeline safety in Alberta.

"Given the significant number of pipeline spills in recent months, Alberta should conduct a review of the integrity of Alberta's pipeline system," said Simon Dyer, policy director with Alberta's the Pembina Institute. "Pipeline spills are inevitable but the risks can be reduced through stronger regulation and practices."

The ERCB defended the province's rules. "Alberta has a fairly strong safety record of pipeline safety regardless of the recent incidents," spokesman Darin Barter said. "I couldn't speculate on whether the province should or shouldn't call any sort of review of pipelines because I know our pipelines, at this point, we consider to be adequate."

In 2010, the province averaged nearly two pipeline failures a day, spilling 9,350 litres. Mr. Barter said Alberta's record may look ugly compared with other areas because it demands all incidents be reported.

He acknowledged, however, that "there's also room to improve and we'll be looking at everything in front of us. But at this point, the ERCB is confident its regulations are protective of public safety."

Enbridge, in a statement, blamed "a failure of a flange gasket" for the spill and said "there is no risk to public health or safety."

Pipeline safety is a critical issue for Alberta, as its government mounts a major domestic and international initiative to convince people in British Columbia and the U.S. that a series of new oil sands pipelines – including Keystone XL and Northern Gateway, an Enbridge proposal – can be built without causing environmental damage. That has made the subject of spills a touchy one that officials have sought to play down.

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On Tuesday, for example, Alberta's Ministry of Environment and Sustainable Resource Development said the recent spills are not necessarily cause for alarm, noting they happened in different parts of the province.

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