The NOW’s Jennifer Moreau toured Kinder Morgan’s tank farm on Burnaby Mountain to see the fire safety equipment first-hand, but is the company prepared to fight a major fire?
Burnaby’s deputy fire chief doesn’t think so and says the company is contravening the city’s bylaw on fire safety. Both sides allege the other is being uncooperative, and in the middle of it all are 1.6 million barrels of crude, close to homes and schools.
On the tank far
It’s an overcast July day on the grassy slopes of Burnaby Mountain, and the smell of crude picks up with the breeze. The site is covered in tall grass, wiry dandelions and 13 massive storage tanks that hold oil brought from Alberta through Kinder Morgan’s Trans Mountain pipeline.
The company’s Rob Hadden, Craig Telford and PR rep Lisa Clement have invited the NOW to see the facility’s fire safety equipment.
Fire detection and equipment
The first line of defence is detection, the men explain, and there are “fire eyes” and wires on the tanks that act as sensors, should the oil ignite. The sensors trigger alarms monitored 24/7 in Burnaby and Edmonton, and there are systems attached to the tanks that spray foam to suppress fires.
“You can’t use water on a petroleum fire,” Hadden says. “All you do using water is spread the fire out.”
Kinder Morgan also has one foam trailer (and another one on the way) that can be deployed in the event of an emergency. The newest piece of equipment is a shiny red fire-water pump from Texas.
Thankfully, the company has never had to use the equipment in a real scenario.
“We’ve been here for 60 years now, and we haven’t had a tank fire,” Hadden says. “They do happen, … but we’ve never had one.”
Kinder Morgan has trained staff to operate the equipment, and Hadden estimates they have 20 people who can be called on in the event of a fire.
“Reality is, in the middle of the night, we are manned here, but we have one guy. He’s going to call 911,” Hadden says. “Initially, that manpower on site will be our guy, the security guard, and the fire department. … That’s why we want to have a relationship with the fire department, so they are not getting here and seeing (the new equipment) for the first time.”
Hadden says they’ve invited the fire department to see the new equipment, since they will be called on for the actual firefighting, but they haven’t received any committal response.
“We’re struggling with Burnaby right now,” Hadden says. “It would be nice if they were more co-operative. … Regardless, there are still 13 tanks on this hill with a lot of oil. We have to respond effectively with the fire department.”
Hadden even expressed concern that the fire department may not show up if Kinder Morgan calls with an emergency.
“I don’t know what their status is if we were to call 911,” he says.
Burnaby’s deputy fire chief Chris Bowcock is the tank farm’s most outspoken critic when it comes to fire safety, and he has a background working in the oil industry with tank farms. Bowcock says Kinder Morgan’s ability to respond to fires has decreased over the years, and the company expects the fire department to make up for it.
“We don’t believe they have any firefighting capabilities,” he told the NOW. “They have equipment, but they don’t have anyone to operate it.”
According to Bowcock, the deal with other local oil facilities – like Chevron, Suncor and Shell – is the facility will fight its own fire, while the department protects the surrounding community and helps supply water.
Kinder Morgan used to have a fire truck but got rid of it (along with associated personnel) and didn’t notify the fire department of the changes, Bowcock says.
“Currently, the fire department believes Kinder Morgan is in contravention of the fire bylaw on several points,” Bowcock says.
Furthermore, Kinder Morgan has refused to provide a comprehensive version of the emergency response plan for the current tank farm, Bowcock adds.
“When I insisted, they gave us an emergency response plan for the entire pipeline with all the references for the tank farm removed,” Bowcock says. “Also, when I asked specifically for the details on the storage tanks and written protocols for how they plan the fire protection for the storage tanks, I was told by Kinder Morgan that they have none.”
Meanwhile, Chevron, Shell, Suncor have provided emergency response protocols, Bowcock adds.
Hadden conceded that there is no plan specifically for the tank farm, but the company is working on one. It’s in draft form, and Kinder Morgan is hoping for input from the fire department.
According to Bowcock, on May 30, the fire department met with Kinder Morgan, and the company disclosed they had no ability to provide any personnel for hands-on fire protection.
Bowcock says that was the first time the company admitted to having no capability to fight fires.
Bowcock says Kinder Morgan could call backup personnel from other parts of Canada and the U.S., but that would mean letting the fire burn until they arrive, something that concerns him given the toxic fumes that would result.
Hadden explains that refineries are considered more hazardous because their products are more flammable. However, Bowcock says the industrial standards for fire protection treat petroleum with the same degree of hazard rating for refined products.
“In fact, crude petroleums have some event potential that are extremely catastrophic that don’t exist for refined products,” he says.
Tank farm expansion concerns
Kinder Morgan wants to more than triple the storage capacity on Burnaby Mountain, as part of its proposed pipeline expansion. The company would add 14 new tanks, and replace one old one, bringing the total to 26 and the volume to roughly 5.6 million barrels.
The fire department has already raised several safety concerns via a request for information through the city, as part of the National Energy Board hearing process, but the company’s response was inadequate, according to the mayor Derek Corrigan.
“The responses received to date from Kinder Morgan have been evasive and do not adequately address fire staff (and more broadly city staff) concerns that potential risks and impacts of a fire event at Burnaby Mountain terminal can be appropriately responded to by the company,” the mayor said in a media release.
Kinder Morgan’s Ali Hounsell has stated the company will provide “more detailed emergency response plans for the expansion” in the future, but that doesn’t sit well with Bowcock.
“They have no ability to respond in any way to any fire, so how is a future risk assessment and detailed response plan going to change that at all?” he asks.
Why no cooperation?
When asked why the fire department hasn’t met recently with Kinder Morgan, Bowcock says it’s because the company wants the firefighters to take over responsibility for handling onsite fires.
“They’ve asked us to get involved, and they want us to take on the entire protection within the facility, and absolve them of the fire fighting responsibility within the facility, and we’re not agreeing to do that,” Bowcock says.
Is the fire department playing politics?
It’s no secret the city is against the pipeline expansion, and the mayor has said he will stand in front of a bulldozer to stop it. On the political front, not much happens in Burnaby without the mayor’s approval or knowledge, but Bowcock says there’s been no political interference from the city.
“The mayor has never asked us to take a position one way or the other,” Bowcock says. “The fire department’s core mission is to be advocates for fire safety, prevention and response within the city, regardless of political parties or interests.”
Where do we go from here?
The fire department wants Kinder Morgan to fight its own fires.
In the event of an emergency, the department would still respond but expects to work under the direction of Kinder Morgan’s staff, especially because local firefighters haven’t been trained to deal with crude.
Hadden disagrees with the fire department’s assertion they can’t fight fires and reiterates that their staff are trained to operate the equipment. “We’ve also put the invitation out to Burnaby (firefighters) that we are providing training courses to our own folks, and we’d like to invite them as well,” he says.
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