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Produced water, water that is used to extract oil and gas from the ground, covers the ground at a spill site after from an Apache Corp. pipeline in northwestern Alberta, 20 kilometres north of Zama City, Alta.

Handout/Dene Tha First Nation

A pipeline that leaked in northern Alberta was only five years old and designed to last for 30, according to top executives with Apache Canada, the company responsible for a large spill of toxic oil and gas waste.

The massive 9.5-million litre leak in a region that has produced oil and gas since the 1950s immediately drew suspicions that poorly maintained infrastructure was to blame. But the spill, which was detected June 1, stemmed from relatively new equipment, Apache said in an interview Thursday.

"We've tried to work as much as we could to keep it in good shape," said Tim Wall, the outgoing president of Canadian operations for Houston-based Apache Corp. The company is working to clean up the spill of "produced water," a byproduct of oil and gas wells that is high in salinity and can contain other toxic materials, including hydrocarbon remnants and heavy metals.

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The spill has affected 42 hectares near Zama City, Alta., less than 100 kilometres from the Northwest Territories border. The local Dene Tha First Nation has reported extensive damage to vegetation and forest in the spill area; aerial photos show a broad strip of trees that have turned brown.

But Mr. Wall said it is "kind of puzzling" why the pipeline leaked, given its relative youth.

It was what he called a "premium flex line that was coated inside and out" and designed for decades of use. "We just need to get this all cleaned up, get it reclaimed, do the remediation – then we'll figure out what happened."

He declined comment on how long the leak had continued before it was detected. Based on the browning of trees, the Dene Tha suspect it has been a longstanding spill – perhaps dating back to the winter.

Mr. Wall said that seems unlikely.

"We don't believe so from what we're seeing," he said, but offered no more specifics.

"We'll go through a full investigation and we'll let people now."

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Neither Apache nor the Alberta government have made public the size of the affected pipeline or its typical flow rates.

He also defended the company's decision not to notify the broader public of the pipeline spill, which was eventually brought to a light by a TV station. It is the largest in Alberta in decades but, unlike other accidents, contained only a small volume of oil – perhaps 2,000 litres. The company says those have now been cleaned up, and there was no need to spread the word about a spill in a remote area.

"It didn't affect people in general. There wasn't anybody harmed. There wasn't anybody that was directly affected," Mr. Wall said. He added: "it was salt water, so we were trying to get that reclaimed as soon as we could."

More than 100 people are now on site, Mr. Wall said, and more are expected. Rainfall in the area has hampered cleanup efforts.

The release of produced water into the environment has, in other areas, brought criticism to industry. In Ecuador, for example, activists engaged in a massive lawsuit against Chevron Corp. accuse its predecessor company, Texaco, of damaging the environment through long-term dumping of the substance. Chevron has accused its critics of promoting an "outright fabrication." In an online statement, the company says "produced water is not considered 'toxic waste' in the United States nor in any other part of the world," although its high salt content can kill plants and freshwater fish.

Still, experts in oilfield waste handling say a produced water spill tends to be less harmful than an oil spill. Whereas oil is sticky and difficult to scrub from the ground, produced water flows more easily, and can be pumped away and cleaned up.

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"Think about it in terms of washing your clothes. It's really easy to wash out something that's very water soluble," said Preston McEachern, vice-president of research and development at Calgary-based Tervita Corp. Treating produced water is part of the company's core business.

Though the substance is different in every well – and Mr. McEachern has no knowledge of what Apache spilled – he said 9.5 million litres, or 60,000 barrels, of produced water would typically provide fewer challenges than an oil leak of that size.

"Sixty thousand barrels of water would be a fair bit of pumping. But if it was 60,000 barrels of oil, that would be a very big challenge to clean up. Whereas produced water is comparably easy to clean up," he said.

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