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Port Moody leak a blending agent, not a fuel, says company

A local First Nation and an environmental advocacy group are speaking out after a biofuel additive leaked from a Port Moody energy plant on Saturday, with two litres reaching the Burrard Inlet.

Approximately 225 barrels of a soybean-based blending agent leaked from the Suncor Energy tank sometime between 7:30 and 8 p.m.

The leaked substance was not a biofuel, as some previous reports indicated, but an additive which a Suncor spokesperson described as clear, colourless, odourless and biodegradable. It's added to biofuels in order to meet certain mandated requirements and has not been classified as environmentally hazardous, she said.

"We are cooperating with the [B.C. environment] ministry and conducting our own investigation to find out what happened," said spokesperson Sneh Seetal.

After employees at the plant discovered the leak in one of the storage tanks on site, booms and absorbent pads were used to capture the additive that leaked into the inlet. About 250 millilitres has been collected so far.

Seetal said that the company's response procedure was initiated immediately, and that all the appropriate authorities were notified.

However, ForestEthics, an environmental advocacy group, and the Tsleil-Waututh First Nation community, situated on the shore of the north end of the Burrard Inlet, say the public should have been informed earlier.

Carlene Thomas from the Tsleil-Waututh said that the environment ministry directly contacted them on Wednesday afternoon, four days after the leak was discovered.

"It was even more troubling that Suncor didn't try to contact us," she said.

"'Frustrating' would be an understatement -- it's disappointing. In a democracy, we're supposed to have access to this kind of information," said ForestEthics Advocacy tar sands campaign director Ben West.

"We understand there are some concerns about whether the spill was reported to the emergency line fast enough and whether the local government and First Nation were advised in a timely way," reads an emailed statement from the environment ministry in response to request for comment. "At this point, it appears it was reported quickly. However, we understand the community's concern and we will carefully review the timeline to see if any improvements can be made."

West said the leak is an indication of how unsafe it is to produce and transport natural energy products like oil and gas.

"In this case, it was really just luck that what was in that storage tank was not a more dangerous product," said West. "This is a reminder that infrastructure failures happen all the time."

Thomas said that even though only a small amount or product reached the Burrard Inlet, it's important to think about the cumulative effect of other such "small" spills.

The community's seafood harvest could be affected by more spills such as this, she said. They currently harvest crabs and salmon from the inlet.

"Soon there may be nothing harvestable in the inlet," said Thomas.

The Tsleil-Waututh Nation wants the government to put a moratorium on pipelines until better communication practices are put in place, as well as a "transparent and credible plan for dealing with spills" that incorporates input from the nation and other B.C. residents.

"I think it's important that people understand the Tsleil-Waututh First Nation isn't against development. We just want people to start focusing on sustainability," said Thomas.

ForestEthics added this leak to its list of 10 spills in the oil industry that have happened in North America in the last month.

Another spill on the list was a Suncor plant in Alberta. As reported in the Globe and Mail, a March 25 spill leaked 350,000 litres of industrial waste water into the Athabasca River.

Suncor suffered criticism for lack of communication in that instance, as well.

Sneetal said part of the company's investigation into the leak will involve reviewing its response plan.

"We'll look for any improvements we can make," she said.

Sneetal said that since the two facilities are different and the leaked products are different, it's difficult to make a comparison between the incidents.

"What's linking both is that it's an unintended release of product and it's unacceptable," she said. "And we're disappointed."

She added the company has senior leaders looking into the root causes of the spills so they don't happen again.

Carly Rhianna Smith is completing a practicum at The Tyee.

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