Trans Mountain Pipeline operators ignored alarms warning of Abbotsford oil spill: report

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By Gordon Hamilton, Vancouver Sun

Kinder Morgan’s Sumas terminal or tank farm sits across from the intersection of McKee Road and Sumas Mountain Road in Abbotsford. Residents who smell vapours report to the emergency number.
Kinder Morgan’s Sumas terminal or tank farm sits across from the intersection of McKee Road and Sumas Mountain Road in Abbotsford. Residents who smell vapours report to the emergency number.

A National Energy Board report reveals that Trans Mountain Pipeline operators ignored warning alarms for three-and-a-half hours before responding to a gasket failure that resulted in a crude oil spill last January at its Sumas tank farm near Abbotsford.

It took six hours after the first warning sounded for Trans Mountain’s Sumas operator to arrive on the scene, where a spill was discovered. The crude oil did not escape from a containment area but noxious fumes were released into the atmosphere, affecting nearby residents.

The NEB estimates 90,000 litres of crude oil escaped.

This latest oil spill report comes at a time when pipeline owner Kinder Morgan is applying to expand the pipeline’s capacity from 300,000 barrels a year to 750,000 barrels to feed Asian markets. It has given the company a black eye, said Ben West, of the Wilderness Committee.

The report is critical of monitoring staff at Trans Mountain’s control centre at Edmonton, stating that the control centre operator failed to set an alarm within the required time limit of 15 minutes after an oil transfer had taken place at the Sumas tank farm the evening of Jan. 23, and then failed to respond to leak warning alarms that sounded every hour until the operator’s shift ended.

The NEB report finds that the leak was detected later than it should have been, the control centre operator did not follow procedures and there were improper alarm settings in a recently-installed data acquisition system. The board states Trans Mountain Pipeline has identified corrective actions to address the report’s findings.

“The board finds that these actions are appropriate to prevent the occurrence of similar incidents in the future.”

The report, which was released earlier this month, states that the operator assumed the alarms were being caused by high winds and did not send a field technician to investigate.

Further, the operator failed to understand that the volume in the tank was dropping.

“The night shift CCO (control centre operator) did notice the trend, but considering the initial volume change as relatively small, interpreted the cause as a weather event, not a possible leak,” states the report.

The spill happened at an undetermined time around midnight Jan. 23 as a result of a gasket failure on the roof of a tank caused by pressure from frozen water in the roof drain system.

The temperature was cold and a strong wind was blowing. There had been a transfer of warmer crude oil into the tank earlier in the evening; after the transfer, the control centre operator failed to set the warning alarm.

There were two alarm systems, a new system and a legacy system. The new alarm was set at 11:26 p.m., Jan. 23 but the one that the operator was to use for monitoring, the legacy system, was not set until 1:11 a.m., Jan. 24.

At 2:39 a.m., Jan. 24 the first alarm from the legacy system was received. The command centre operator decided it was a false alarm.

At 3:11 a second alarm was received, from the new system being installed on the pipeline, but the operator again assumed it was a false alarm.

At 4:11, a third alarm was received. The centre operator deemed it notable but did not see any change in the tank level so left a note on it for the day shift.

A new shift arrived at 5 a.m. The day operator reviewed tank levels but determined the one-cubic-metre change was within the accuracy level of the measuring device.

At 5:47 the fourth alarm was received and at 5:50, the operator called the Sumas terminal operator to investigate. The terminal operator arrived on the site at 6:50, discovered the leak and closed the roof drain, isolating the source.

The control centre received the first odour complaint at 7 a.m.

The fact that, similar to Enbridge’s 2010 spill on the Kalamazoo River in Michigan, Trans Mountain Pipeline staff ignored warning alarms raises concerns over Trans Mountain’s plans to twin its Edmonton-to-Burnaby pipeline, said Jay Ritchlin, director-general of the David Suzuki Foundation.

“Even with highly advanced systems you will have a spill. This case seems to be a really egregious case of human error. It’s tragic. What you have is the release of a chemical that does significant harm to human health and the environment during the peak period when you could actually hope to do something about it,” he said. “I think people are seeing more and more instances of spills … and are seeing difficulty in getting any realistic response. I think it will make people more suspicious that these kinds of things can be run safely.”

After the spill, Kinder Morgan spokesperson Lexa Hobenshield said the only threat to residents was from nuisance odours.

In an email Tuesday, she said: “We take all incidents at our facilities seriously. Kinder Morgan Canada completed a thorough investigation and learned lessons after oil from a storage tank was released into a fully contained area on KMC’s Sumas Terminal property on January 24, 2012.

“As a result of our investigation, we have established new prevention and community notification measures, which we have communicated to the Sumas Mountain community, and will continue to provide updates as needed.” (What are these?)

Abbotsford resident and pipeline opponent Michael Hale, who discovered the NEB report, said it reinforces his concerns.

“There seems to be a propensity on the company’s part to minimize the seriousness of what was involved,” he said.

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