Katie May Northern News Services Published Monday, November 8, 2010
INUVIK - Shoreline erosion along the Mackenzie River has prompted one of the world's exploration giants to clean up a former drilling site outside of Inuvik.
In the 1970s, Shell Canada drilled 22 exploration wells across the Mackenzie Delta, none of which were ever used as wells. When the company later shut down the sites in the mid-1990s, sumps holding chemicals and other waste were buried into the permafrost. But as the shoreline continues to erode - Shell estimates it will continue to erode by 40 metres in as many years - the company has plans to remove the sump at a site known as Unipkat, about 115 kilometres northwest of Inuvik, before contaminated material hits the water.
Randall Warren, Shell Canada's manager of drilling waste, said the company decided to remove the sump along with about 6,500 cubic metres of contaminated soil starting in January. It has been frozen in the permafrost metres away from the riverbank since 1996.
"We wanted to make sure we got in there and removed it before the river eroded. As you know, erosion on the river can be unpredictable," Warren said. "It could still be five to 10 years before the river erodes back to that point, but at the same time ... it's not worth the risk of waiting any longer."
Representatives from Shell and environmental consulting firms held a public meeting in Inuvik Nov. 2 with fewer than 10 people in attendance. They met with Hunters and Trappers committees in Aklavik and Tuktoyaktuk the following day to explain the $5 million reclamation project. Warren estimated a similar "dig and dump" project in southern Canada would cost 10 times less to complete.
He said the company has no plans to remove sumps from any of its other former exploration wells in the region.
"The rest of them are pretty far away from the riverbank and at the present time there's no risk of them eroding into the river," Warren said, adding the company doesn't see any risk of contamination as long as those sumps remain frozen more than a metre underground.
The first part of the work, which includes building an ice access road to remove about 3,000 cubic metres of soil, placing it in a treatment cell in Inuvik's industrial area and shipping the sump to a waste facility in British Columbia, is expected to be finished by March. It will create about 24 jobs for truck drivers, wildlife monitors and employees of Shell's chosen Inuvialuit contractors: E. Gruben's Transport, Northwind Industries and Allen Services - a plan that raised the ire of some Inuvik residents and smaller contractors who believed the project should have been put out to bid.
"It's kind of a stab in the back to these small contractors," resident Shirley Kisoun told representatives at the public meeting.
In response, Warren said Shell needs to work with experienced contractors who already have the heavy duty equipment necessary to work in the area. However, he said it would be up to those large contractors if they wanted to hire out some services locally, such as renting trucks.
"These companies do an excellent job and they have a great safety record," he said. "One of the things that makes it very difficult for us (Shell) is to have five or six different contracts for a job like this," he added. "We've gone over 1,400 days without a lost-time incident, so we put a lot of effort into that and when you start engaging some of the smaller contractors, they just don't have the health and safety management systems that are required to execute these projects."
Shell still needs screening committee approval and permits from the NWT Water Board and the Department of Indian and Northern Affairs Canada.