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A major pipeline oil leak is the largest in Alberta since 1975, the province's energy regulator says.

About 28,000 barrels poured out of the Plains Midstream Canada Rainbow pipeline 100 kilometres northeast of Peace River, the Energy Resources Conservation Board said Tuesday, four days after the spill occurred. The spill raises new questions about the health of Alberta's aging pipeline system.

The spill represents 40 per cent more than the 20,000 barrels that leaked from an Enbridge Inc. pipe last summer, in a spill that fouled a Michigan river and cost that company hundreds of millions to clean up. It's bigger than the 19,000 barrels that spilled from a BP Canada line in 1993, but smaller than a 41,000-barrel leak in 1975, on a Bow River Pipeline Ltd. facility.

"It's certainly a very significant leak," said Davis Sheremata, a spokesman with the ERCB.

It's the second major spill from the Rainbow line, whose owner is a subsidiary of publicly traded Plains All American Pipeline, L.P. In late 2006, 7,500 barrels leaked from the pipe, which travels 770 km from Zama, Alta. to Edmonton. At the time, an investigation determined that "stress corrosion cracking, fatigue cracking and external coating failure caused the release." These issues are often related to age; the Rainbow line was built in 1966. It is designed to carry 220,000 barrels per day; last year, it averaged 187,000 barrels per day.

After the previous leak, operators of the pipeline were ordered to lower the system's pressure, increase ground surveillance and conduct internal line inspections.

The new spill occurred in a remote forested area, and crews had to build several kilometres of road to access it. The oil is largely contained on the 30-metre-wide pipeline right-of-way, the regulator said, although some has escaped into a nearby wetland. None has reached running water. The nearest residence is seven kilometres away, and the ERCB noted that pipeline failure rates had been in decline.

Critics say Alberta's aging pipe network is a cause for concern. The Plains spill comes within a week of a leak on a gas line near Fox Creek, that killed a maintenance worker who inhaled deadly sour gas, which is laced with hydrogen sulphide. In late April, another leak on the Trans Mountain pipeline system, which is also an aging pipeline, spilled a small amount of oil into an unnamed creek.

The Rainbow spill was detected by Plains Midstream crews early in the morning on April 29, the ERCB said. The Alberta regulator does not assess fines based on the amount spilled.

"What we do is we have an enforcement ladder ranging from fairly minor infractions, where we'll increase audits and inspections, right up to shutting a facility in," he said. "When you stop a company being able to generate revenue and employ people, we find we get results very quickly with them taking steps to get themselves back in compliance."

It's not clear what punishment, if any, may be used against Plains Midstream, whose outage has caused customers such as Penn West Petroleum Ltd. to truck and store crude, Bloomberg News reported.

Follow Nathan VanderKlippe on Twitter: @nvanderklippeOpens in a new window

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