Fire department worried about tank farm expansion

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Deputy fire chief paints grim worst-case scenario if tank farm were to catch fire.

Burnaby’s deputy fire chief is raising alarming safety concerns about Kinder Morgan’s plan to expand the Burnaby Mountain tank farm.

Dept. Fire Chief Chris Bowcock is worried the 13-tank storage facility, slated for expansion on the south side of Burnaby Mountain, would be an uncontrollable disaster in the event of a major fire or earthquake. His worst-case scenarios involve clouds of poisonous gas, explosions of molten crude and fires burning for days – all close to residential areas and Forest Grove Elementary.

“I think from the fire department’s perspective, we are coming at this as community advocates for fire and safety,” Bowcock told the NOW. “We believe our responsibility is to the citizens of Burnaby – the protection of their lives, their property – and the health of the community as a whole.”

Kinder Morgan filed its application to the National Energy Board in December. The company is proposing to twin the Trans Mountain pipeline and expand the tank storage facility, increasing capacity from 1.6 million barrels of oil to 3.6 million by adding 14 new tanks.

According to Bowcock, Kinder Morgan raised three safety concerns about the tank farm in the application: potential discharge of sulphur-based compounds, such as hydrogen sulphide, a poisonous gas; toxic smoke plumes in the event of a fire; and a “boil-over” event, when a tank is left to burn for an extensive period of time and eventually explodes, spraying molten crude the length of 10 tanks.

“So if you have a 100-foot tank, the dispersal rate of that molten crude would be 1,000 feet – that’s a great distance,” Bowcock said.

For 15 years, Bowcock worked as an emergency management consultant and conducted field training for tank-fire suppression and pre-planning in the Alberta oil sands. While there, he learned a thing or two about tank farms: Don’t put them on mountains and keep them on flat ground and away from residential areas, for instance. According to Bowcock, the tanks must be placed no closer than the diameter of the tank, so if you have a 100-foot diametre tank, the next tank should be at least 100 feet away. There should also be 360-degree access to the tanks, in case of emergency.

Bowcock is concerned about increasing density of the tanks, which he says increases the chances of a fire at one tank spreading to another.

The massive oil tanks have been on Burnaby Mountain for decades, without any major explosions or firestorms, but that doesn’t seem to reassure Bowcock.

“You have to balance the frequency of occurrence with the consequences of occurrence,” he said, adding the region is due for a major earthquake.

And if a fire were to start at the tank farm, it would very likely burn for days, according to Bowcock.

“The amount of heat firefighters are taking on, the amount of risk you’re exposing them to – if you can’t create a safe environment to fight the fire, it may not be extinguishable,” he said, adding it can take four to seven days for a tank to burn off all of its fuel.

According to Bowcock, tank farm fires can start from lightening strikes, even though there are “counter measures” on the tanks.

“Lighting hits high points, and it hits metal objects. Depending where a tank farm is located it can be more or less susceptible to lightning strikes,” Bowcock said.

Any kind of “hot work” – welding, for instance – or errors, human or otherwise, could also start a fire.

The fire department’s concerns were included in the City of Burnaby’s information request, recently filed with the National Energy Board, as a part of the pipeline hearing.

“We have a lot of questions based on the application. The application didn’t provide much specific information on how these risks and emergencies could be managed and reduced,” Bowcock said. “We have concerns about whether it’s even possible to reduce these risks, … and if it is possible, we have no info on how that’s going to be achieved.”

Bowcock said the Kinder Morgan expansion proposal presents too many uncontrollable risks that could have unacceptable consequences for the NEB to accept the proposal.

Oil and gas facilities are required to have their own firefighters onsite, as the prime responsibility for handling a potential fire falls on the operators. However, the city’s fire department may be called on to help, especially with rescues or evacuations, Bowcock explained, and Kinder Morgan’s firefighting capability is “at question,” he added.

The NOW posed Bowcock’s concerns to Ali Hounsell, spokesperson for the Trans Mountain expansion.

“First and foremost, there’s nothing more important to Trans Mountain than the safety of our neighbourhoods, the community and our employees,” she said. “Safety is our top priority, and in 60 years of operation in Burnaby, we’ve never had a fire at the terminal.”

Hounsell said the pipeline application included risk assessments that deal with worst-case scenarios, and worst-case scenario planning assumes there’s no emergency response to a fire, which in reality would not be the case.

“It is important to remember that the assessments contained in the application are preliminary, and we will use the reports to inform the design of the facility and development of our operational emergency response plan. So, we expect the final design will result in significant decreases in the mitigated risks that you see prevented in these types of reports,” she said. “We’ll develop more detailed emergency response plans for the expansion, and we’ll provide updated risk assessments as well.”

Hounsell wasn’t sure when that information will be available, but since the fire department’s concerns were raised in the first round of information requests for the pipeline hearing, Kinder Morgan will formally reply through the hearing. The deadline for the company to respond is June 13.

“We would also look forward with local emergency responders to help develop any response plans moving forward,” Hounsell added.

As for the hilly location and close proximity to homes, Hounsell said there is no proposal to move the facility but reiterated that there have been no fires in six decades.

© Burnaby Now