TransCanada pipeline plan threatens drinking water

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Ian Angus: “Piping tar sands crude over an aquifer rated ‘Highly Vulnerable’ is a reckless plan that threatens the water we all need.”

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The article below, from this week’s edition of the North Grenville Times, is based on my talk at a meeting on TransCanada’s “EnergyEast” plan, organized by Sustainable North Grenville on September 18. 

Some of the participants in Sustainable North Grenville's September 18 Pipeline Information meeting.

Some of the participants in Sustainable North Grenville’s pipeline Information meeting.

The meeting, held in the hall where the Municipal Council usually meets, was one of the most successful political events in this usually conservative community in recent memory: about 120 people attended, and not one spoke in favor of TransCanada’s proposal to pump crude oil 4500  kilometres from Alberta to the east coast.

Other speakers included Andrea Harden of the Council of Canadians, and Ben Powless of Ecology Ottawa. A video of the entire meeting, including talks and the discussion period, can be viewed on YouTube.

North Grenville is a mostly rural community of about 15,000 people, on the south shore of the historic Rideau River. Ottawa, Canada’s capital city, extends from the other side of the Rideau, north to the much larger Ottawa River. Manotick, mentioned in this article, is a community within Ottawa’s boundaries, downstream from North Grenville. 


by Ian Angus

Ian Angus is an environmental writer and a member of Sustainable North Grenville.

TransCanada Pipelines wants to convert its natural gas pipeline, which passes through North Grenville, to carry diluted bitumen and other forms of crude oil.

Sustainable North Grenville is circulating a petition calling on our Municipal Council “to oppose the proposed pipeline until a full assessment has been made of the potential impacts on our drinking water, air, and land, and associated risks to the Rideau River system.”

One of the most important issues is the threat this project poses to our drinking water.

The aquifers that provide drinking water to Ottawa and North Grenville are shown in pink on this map. Click for larger view.

The aquifers that provide drinking water to Ottawa and North Grenville are shown in pink on this map. Click for larger view. Source: Sustainable North Grenville.

All drinking water in North Grenville comes from wells drilled into underground aquifers. There are two aquifers in this area – the deep Nepean Aquifer, which municipal wells use, and above that the shallow Oxford Aquifer, which almost all private wells use.

The proposed crude oil pipeline crosses Ottawa and North Grenville just above the Oxford aquifer. If there’s a spill in Ottawa, North Grenville’s water will be at risk – and vice versa. Mother Nature doesn’t care about municipal borders.

Seventy-percent of homes in North Grenville have private wells, which means 10,000 people in our town depend on the shallow Oxford Aquifer.

In Ontario, all aquifers are rated according to how vulnerable they are to pollution from human activity. The Oxford Aquifer is rated as Highly Vulnerable, the worst possible rating. There’s no category that’s more vulnerable than Highly Vulnerable.

It is Highly Vulnerable because the soil in this part of Ontario is mostly very thin, so it can’t absorb much. And the rock under the soil has many holes and factures, so liquids on the surface can percolate down to our drinking water.

Some areas are more vulnerable than others. Normally, water enters the aquifer in “Significant Groundwater Recharge Areas” – areas where natural conditions allow rain and melted snow to percolate down easily. One of the biggest Groundwater Recharge Areas for the Oxford Aquifer is right here in North Grenville. Guess what – that’s where the TransCanada pipeline is! A pipeline leak in that area could poison wells throughout our entire community and beyond.

The province did a study of the safety of our water supply just three years ago. One of the biggest concerns was that the Oxford Aquifer could easily be polluted by fuel oil. There was no proposal for a crude oil pipeline then, so they were mainly worried about the storage tanks many homes and businesses use for heating oil. If one of those leaked, it could poison wells.

It doesn’t take much to do that. In 1991, in Manotick, a tank containing dry cleaning solvent leaked, poisoning 74 local wells. Manotick had to spend millions of dollars to build a new water distribution system. The town still pipes its water from Ottawa, because the local water supply still isn’t safe, 22 years later.

The threat we face is vastly greater. If TransCanada’s plan is approved, our Highly Vulnerable Aquifer will be crossed by a pipeline carrying 1.1 million barrels of bitumen and solvents every day.

Two years ago this very pipeline exploded in northwestern Ontario, and it took TransCanada six hours to shut off the gas flow. In that amount of time, the proposed pipe could lose 275,000 barrels of tar sands crude. That’s over 7 million gallons of poisonous gunk, sinking into our drinking water. Heating oil tanks and dry cleaning shops are tiny problems by comparison.

Alberta alone has averaged two crude oil pipeline spills a day, every day for the past 37 years. So the issue is not whether this proposed crude oil pipeline will leak – it is where and when and how much.

This threat to our water didn’t exist when the province studied North Grenville’s water system. At the very least, we urgently need a new public environmental assessment of the danger of pumping huge quantities of diluted bitumen through the Significant Groundwater Recharge Areas of a Highly Vulnerable Aquifer.

North Grenville’s Official Plan says that the Municipal government will protect the Nepean and Oxford aquifers “from any development or activity which could impair the functioning of the aquifer or adversely affect its water quality or quantity.”

The Official Plan also says that the Municipality will “protect, improve and/or restore the quantity and quality of groundwater and surface water.”

The Sustainable North Grenville petition simply asks the municipal government to do what the Official Plan says it must do – to oppose a reckless plan that threatens the water we all need. Residents  can sign it online at


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