Posted: May 12th, 2014
After persistently prodding the National Energy Board, pipeline critic David Ellis finally got a report on Kinder Morgan’s two oil spills along the Trans Mountain pipeline route. The spills happened last June, and had temporarily shut the pipeline down for investigation.
What he saw on page two of Kinder Morgan’s Engineering Assessment floored him. It stated that instead of just 20-25 barrels spilled near the Coquihalla Canyon, the pipeline leaked well over quadruple that amount.
Ellis had wondered why Kinder Morgan was hurriedly removing some 5005 cubic metres (over 600 truckloads) of oil-contaminated soil from the area. It seemed excessive, which led him to comment at the time: there’s been more oil spilled than [Kinder Morgan] is saying.
His suspicions were confirmed by the report, which said a subsequent analysis resulted in a revised estimated release volume of approximately 18 m3 — or about 113 barrels of oil spilled in the park area.
At the time that he started voicing his concerns about it, Kinder Morgan attacked his credentials and maintained that the large volume of soil was being removed only to meet strict clean up criteria because of its location within a provincial park.” But the latest report suggests it was because the spill was bigger than people originally thought.
Both Kinder Morgan and the NEB said that the company took the appropriate steps to contain the spill once it started.
“The initial estimate of volume was exactly that, an estimate,” said Kinder Morgan spokesperson Andy Galarnyk. “As remediation work continued we updated the volume estimate based on levels of contamination discovered.”
More problems with aging pipeline expected?
According to the report, the problem was misidentified as a manufacturing anomaly, and later turned out to be a dent with gouges, caused by pipeline fatigue. The pipeline, built in 1953, is now over 60 years old. Ellis worries there may be more problems with the pipe down the road.
It’s like an old garden hose, Ellis said, of the Trans Mountain pipeline. “They should shut this pipe down immediately to investigate.”
Ellis is concerned by the larger-than-reported spill — not only because it took place in a provincial park area is teeming with wildlife, but because the stretch of pipeline around Hope was constructed in 1953 with a thinner pipeline wall than required as part of a cost-saving measure. He believes the last 12 miles of this thin pipe near Hope is especially vulnerable for a spill.
“I am most worried about the thinner, ‘budget-saving’ pipe that did break in the Coquihalla and runs to Hope,” Ellis said. “What would 110 barrels of crude oil do to the Fraser River salmon if it got in there?”
He said he alerted the NEB back in January about information from a rare 1954 book, The Building of Trans Mountain, which notes that at a pressure limiting station located at Hope (near the Coquihalla pass), relief valves can spill oil into two 50,000 tanks so that pressure in the pipe from Hope to Burnaby may be reduced.
The book states on page 99:
“Using this pressure limiting equipment saved about $5,000,000 in the original line investment by avoiding need for heavier wall pipe to withstand high pressures during accidental shut-offs in the low sections of the system.”
“Thinner pipe would make fatigue go faster. The thinner it is, the more effect the fatigue has on it,” TransCanada whistleblower and former metallurgical engineer Evan Vokes said. He also raised issue with the fact that the company has had over 2,600 pipeline “anomaly digs” since 1984, which signalled that the Trans Mountain pipeline was not being very well maintained.
NEB spokesperson Sarah Kiley, however, said that thinner pipe does not necessarily mean increased risk of fatigue. She said there was once incident of overpressure in 2012 around 11km south of Clearwater, but said Kinder Morgan hasn’t said the pipeline was stretched as a result.
Galarnyk noted likewise, stating:
“The pipe on our entire system is designed and maintained for safe operation at the established operating pressures.”
Michael Hale, an intervenor for the NEB hearings on Kinder Morgan’s pipeline expansion and member of the Pipe Up Network, said he was “shocked” by the frenzy of repairs taking place along the existing pipeline route when he and his group went with Ellis to the area last August.
“We were quite shocked to see what was going on up there,” Hale said. “We realized the company was doing a lot more than just oil spill cleanup. There were huge sections of pipe dug up, and it wasn’t just oil spill cleanup. It made us wonder about the integrity of the old pipeline.”
He thought the company may have been rushing to fix existing flaws ahead of the application to twin the Trans Mountain pipeline.
As a result of the pipe cracking in June, the NEB had ordered Kinder Morgan to reduce its operating pressure by 20 per cent last August. But Galarnyk confirmed that the pipeline was now back at 100 per cent, everywhere except for the Edson to Hinton section. He said the section is being assessed and that the company would apply to lift the pressure in due course.
But critics ask if the company should instead be focusing on maintaining its existing pipeline before spending resources on twinning it.
“Shouldn’t the company focus on making the existing Trans Mountain line safe, before wanting to expand bitumen shipments for export?” Hale asked.