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Can Alberta Sands oil be safely shipped on the St. Lawrence?

Kate O'Connell / WXXI
Tankers like these could soon transport oil along the St. Lawrence River.

Crude oil from the Midwest is moving by pipeline and rail across the U.S., including parts of the North Country.  Some companies are interested in shipping oil to East Coast refineries by way of the St. Lawrence River.

At a conference organized last weekend by the Thousand Islands-based group, Save the River, environmentalists and state officials voiced concern over the potential of a catastrophic oil spill.

The St. Lawrence river is frozen solid right now but come spring, tankers will begin their slow journey up and down the waterway. They carry huge amounts of heavy raw materials like grain, iron and coal to ports in the U.S. and Canada.

Only a few shipments  of crude oil from Alberta Sands in Canada and the Baaken in North Dakota have come through the seaway. But environmentalists and state official are concerned more will come. 

“This is a huge issue because there is a lot of oil in different forms being extracted in the Midwest in our country and in Alberta Canada," said Lee Willbanks, director of Save the River. "And right now there is more oil coming out of the ground then has a conduit to a refinery. "

Gary McCullough, with the Department of Environmental Conservation says his fundamental  concern is that spills on the St. Lawrence River would be extremely challenging to clean up. McCullough says that’s because the  river’s current is really strong.

“The oil will move on the water faster then we have the ability to contain it. If you lost a large amount of oil on Alexandria Bay that oil has already traversed the oil already to Massena," said McCullough. 

McCullough mentioned the  Nepco spill of 1976.  A huge barge carrying thick motor oil ran aground and spilled 500 thousand gallons.

“You can still see oil strips on rocks up in OgensburgMassena area,” McCullough said.

But McCullouch says much of that oil floated. The oil from the tar sand, on the other hand is much heavier and it may not float. Oil that sinks causes more damage because its almost impossible  to completely remove from a river floor.  

Emma Lui,  with the Council of Canadians said already this fall, the  company Suncor shipped Alberta Tar Sands oil along the River.

“The shipments that happen with Suncor really set a precedent for other shipments to happen, ”Lui said.

Lui's organization released a study that found the cost to clean up just 10 percent of the oil from a Suncor tanker would be more than the Canadian government can afford.

“We are not prepared nationally and locally the mayors in the communities aren’t prepared either and if we aren’t prepared we should be doing this, " Lui said.

Lee Willbanks says talking about the worst case scenarios when it comes to shipping oil can at the very least keep make those in charge think before they act.

“It is really shame on us if we  as a community don’t demand this discussion and have it in every level of government before we ship this," Willbanks said.

The low price of oil now means shippers aren’t moving much but  that could change by the time the seaway reopens for navigation in March.