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Gord Johnston surveys the oil-soaked banks of the Red Deer River in Alberta following an oil leak, June 8, 2012.

Nathan VanderKlippe

Gord Johnston's tranquil life along the Red Deer River in central Alberta was shattered Thursday night as the nauseating scent of crude oil hung in the air and a coffee-coloured liquid lapped the banks near his home.

He reported the oil leak and, within two hours, a helicopter dispatched by a local oil company landed on his 57-acre property near Sundre, Alta., to fly him over the devastating scene. Mr. Johnston, who works in the oil patch, could see oil "boiling up" in the river at the site of a pipeline crossing. By Friday morning, the situation had worsened. Oil clotted one of the province's most crucial waterways and soaked nearby wetlands. He found a dead fish coated with oil and brought a tar-covered baby beaver to a wildlife refuge.

"My place is destroyed," Mr. Johnston said, as he prepared to abandon his home and later head for a hospital to be treated for exposure to the fumes. "My whole life's work is gone. I've pretty well lost it all here."

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Plains Midstream Canada, which operates the pipeline that was built in 1966, shut a 10-kilometre section of its Rangeland South line. While the company is still investigating the cause and precise location of the spill, it estimated that 1,000 to 3,000 barrels of crude, or 160,000 to 480,000 litres, has leaked. About 90 workers were erecting booms in Lake Gleniffer, some 40 kilometres downstream, in an bid to prevent an oil slick from reaching Red Deer, Alberta's third-largest city, which draws its water from the river.

But cleanup and containment won't be easy and could take all summer, officials said.

The already engorged river could flood again as another storm system is in the weekend forecast. It may be equally difficult to undo the damage to Alberta's energy industry, which has recently suffered a number of high-profile spills. But unlike previous incidents, this spill isn't in a remote location and it comes as the continent is in the midst of heated debates over construction of the Keystone XL and Northern Gateway pipelines.

Alberta Premier Alison Redford, who visited the cleanup site with her Environment Minister Friday, pledged that her Progressive Conservative government would take action if necessary – depending on the outcome of the investigation. But she was quick to defend the industry that is the province's lifeblood.

"In Alberta, this does not happen very often, and when it does we're able to get a handle on it quickly," she said, adding she believed "the situation is in hand."

Although bottled water was being trucked in as a precaution, Stephen Bart, vice-president of crude oil operations with Plains Midstream Canada, reassured the public: "At this point in time we don't believe the release poses any potential threat to both water quality and/or residents so we'll continue to monitor that situation. If that situation should change, we would respond accordingly."

The Energy Resources Conservation Board, an independent agency that regulates energy in the province, is overseeing the cleanup measures. While it has conducted probes into specific incidents as well as general inquiries in the past, agency spokesman Bob Curran said a review with respect to pipelines is "not contemplated at this point."

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About 400,000 kilometres of pipelines snake across Alberta both above and below ground, and the ERCB's most recent review of the industry concluded that pipeline problems are on the wane.

In 2010, there were 687 failures, the majority of them leaks, which resulted in 3,416 cubic metres of spilled hydrocarbons. In most cases, the cause was internal or external corrosion or construction damage. The age and construction of decades-old pipelines have proven problematic in the past, especially since old pipe often is not buried to the same depth as new pipe, and can be vulnerable to heavy springtime river flow.

Environmentalists and critics said this spill is the latest in a worrisome trend that should trigger an independent review. "It does raise a lot of questions about general pipeline safety in Alberta," said Mike Hudema of Greenpeace Canada.

Chris Severson-Baker, managing director of the Pembina Institute, said a pipeline review would provide a reality check on the severity of the problem as well as show the state of the province's energy infrastructure.

Joe Anglin, environment critics for the opposition Wildrose Party, said while the regulations are in place to help prevent spills, the province is failing to provide adequate monitoring and enforcement. He called for more "boots on the ground" to check pipelines and went further to call for a broader look at the problem. "We may need a review of the ERCB," he said.

This week, the auditor in neighbouring Saskatchewan said that province isn't doing enough to ensure the safety of its pipeline network – which is 17 times smaller than Alberta's – and called for more inspections, tests and increased protocols to ensure regulations are followed.

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Plains Midstream, a subsidiary of Plains All American Pipeline LP, is the same company that saw a massive 28,000-barrel spill in northern Alberta last year. Crews are currently cleaning up a 5,000-barrel oil spill from piping attached to a well owned by Pace Oil & Gas Ltd.

Loretta Leonhardt, who owns property where the latest spill occurred, said she is concerned. "We all love the oil industry in Alberta, but I think they've been really lax on what they've been doing for the environment," she said. "And I think it's time they're called to task on some of this stuff."

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