After correctly predicting leaks, activist continues crusade against pipeline

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For the past 18 years David Ellis has been travelling around British Columbia in a van quietly selling rare, old books.

But his life took an unexpected detour last year when he stumbled on The Building of Trans Mountain: Canada’s first oil pipeline across the Rockies.

“It opened my eyes,” says Mr. Ellis of the 1954 publication that describes the use of construction methods and materials that would not be acceptable today.

It inspired him to hike parts of the pipeline route for a first-hand look.

Since then, Mr. Ellis has been on a crusade against a proposal by Kinder Morgan to twin the pipeline. The project would increase the flow of oil through the system from 300,000 barrels per day to 890,000 barrels.

Mr. Ellis is doing his best to rally opposition, saying that not only should the Kinder Morgan project be rejected as a threat to the environment, but the existing pipeline should be shut down too.

“The pipeline that’s there now is old, antiquated technology. It’s breaking down. It should be removed,” he says. “There are hundreds of clamps on it [re-enforcing weak spots]. It’s like a 60-year-old garden hose.”

And although Kinder Morgan is proposing to build a new, state-of-the-art pipeline, which would have better steel and an increased number of safety valves, Mr. Ellis says it is still too risky given the mountainous terrain and the route that parallels and crosses important salmon rivers, including the Fraser.

It might be tempting for Kinder Morgan to ignore a pesky critic who doesn’t have any powerful NGOs backing him, and whose research is based largely on an old book.

But Mr. Ellis’s plodding, unrelenting opposition, which has included a barrage of e-mails to government and media, is starting to get noticed. This summer he drew a small crowd to the summit of the Coquihalla Pass, to walk along the pipeline with him looking for leaky spots. Among those who joined him were members of the Pipe Up Network, which is opposed to both the proposed Enbridge Northern Gateway project and the Kinder Morgan expansion. And according to The Valley Voice, about 30 First Nation leaders also attended, including Grand Chief Stewart Phillip of the Union of B.C. Indian Chiefs and Chief Art Adolph of the Lillooet Tribal Council.

So Mr. Ellis is no longer walking alone.

One of the reasons he has been getting a following is a letter he wrote in August, 2012, to Natural Resources Canada, in which he warned the Kinder Morgan line was going to spring leaks.

Mr. Ellis said the old pipeline was designed for light crude, but Kinder Morgan also uses it to transport diluted bitumen, which puts it under greater pressure.

“Putting tar-sands bitumen down this very old pipe now, will, I predict, lead to a blowout and spill, quite soon. It will most likely rupture near Hope, or just up the Coquihalla River,” he wrote.

Ten months later the pipeline sprang a leak southwest of Merritt and two weeks after that ruptured again, near Hope. Both leaks were small (12 barrels and 25 barrels) and Kinder Morgan, which prides itself on its safety record, responded quickly, mopping up the oil before it did any damage.

But Mr. Ellis’s credibility soared. With remarkable accuracy he had predicted where and when leaks would occur in a pipeline that is more than 1,000 kilometres long.

Kinder Morgan, which has “zero tolerance” for spills, points out that it has had a remarkably good record with the Trans Mountain Pipeline. In 60 years it has shipped billions of barrels of oil, spilling only a few thousand in 78 incidents, the vast majority of which were minor.

“They have been incredibly lucky,” says Mr. Ellis when asked about that record. “It’s inevitable that there will be a blowout on that line.”

He was right once. Kinder Morgan must be hoping he’s not again.