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Just How Risky is Kinder Morgan’s Trans Mountain Pipeline Expansion?

With the May 27 deadline for evidence submission to the National Energy Board’s review of the Kinder Morgan pipeline expansion project fast approaching, the cities of Burnaby and Vancouver are stepping up.

Last Wednesday, the City of Burnaby quietly released a report [PDF] outlining the risks and possible implications of a fire at the Burnaby tanker terminal. The results, to quote Mayor Derek Corrigan, are “comprehensive and jarring.”

“It is remarkable that Kinder Morgan is even asking the citizens of Burnaby to assume such risks, but even moreso that the National Energy Board is willing to consider expanding this storage site in this location — on a hillside near thousands of residents and a busy university, and adjacent to an urban conservation area. This report clearly demonstrates that questions about the safety of this proposed tank farm expansion should be answered prior to any decisions being made by the NEB and that the Board should consider this an essential priority.”

Encompassing 60 pages, the report explores several scenarios where oil could spill and ignite at Kinder Morgan’s tank storage facility off Hastings Street, including a tank fire, explosion and a major earthquake.

Too Many Tanks, Too Little Space

According to the report, the largest potential risk to Burnaby lies in the addition of a large number of new tanks to the existing farm. In order to accommodate the increased output of the twinned pipeline, Kinder Morgan would need to increase the number of tanks at its storage facility from 12 to 26, adding 14 new larger tanks (one of which is a replacement). 

Adding in the proposed new storage tanks on the existing site greatly reduces the buffer zone between the tanks, and moves them significantly closer to the public. 

When a fire occurs at the tank farm — and the report makes it clear that no company can make a 100 per cent guarantee they won't — it will have the potential to be more severe in magnitude, and pose a much greater risk to the public. The closer the tanks are, the more likely it is that nearby storage tanks could to catch fire as well. The report notes that “the distance between storage tanks is a key design and engineering feature provided to allow firefighters to effectively isolate an active tank fire, preventing a multiple tank fire event” and that many of the potential tank fire scenarios within the Trans Mountain Tank Farm facility would be inextinguishable due to lack of safe firefighting positions.

"In order to extinguish a tank fire within the Trans Mountain Tank Farm, emergency responders could be forced to significantly risk their personal safety in order to overcome the design inadequacies of the facility. Specifically, the configuration of the tank farm on a hillside in such a tight footprint would require firefighting personnel to operate in elevated positions above the tank, exposing them to potentially excessive heat and smoke outfalls. In these instances emergency responders would likely be forced to allow the tank fire to burn out while adjacent tanks are protected." – Burnaby Fire Department

A worst case scenario tank farm fire, as set out in the report, is legitimately terrifying: a fire breaks out in one or more of the tanks. It spreads quickly through the close-set tanks, as flames burst across the tops of nearby trees and into the Burnaby Mountain Conservation Area. This cuts off road access to Simon Fraser University, exposing the thousands of people living, studying and working there to noxious burning bitumen fumes, including extremely toxic hydrogen sulfide.

The possible impact of an earthquake dumps even more fuel on the nightmare pyre. According to the report: “The potential liquid product release scenario stemming from an expected regional area seismic event would be catastrophic in nature, and has potential to release the contents of several if not all of the storage tanks simultaneously, overwhelming the facilities' retention provisions and flowing unrestricted to highly populated residential areas and sensitive environmental habitats.”

A Bitumen-coated Shoreline in Less than 72 Hours

On Friday morning, the City of Vancouver released their first new piece of evidence — a 2D computer spill model encompassing four scenarios of how oil might spread if spilled in Burrard Inlet. The City of Vancouver, City of Burnaby and Tsleil-Waututh Nation commissioned the report by spill modelling experts Genwest Systems.

The new report finds two key faults with the oil spill models submitted by Kinder Morgan as part of their application to the National Energy Board. Firstly, that Kinder Morgan’s models do not account for beached oil refloating after an initial spill, and secondly, that the supplied modelling of a spill at the Westridge Marine Terminal was ‘unrealistic’ and relied too much on the assumption that containment booms are always properly placed and always work.

The time-lapse video below shows how bitumen and condensate would spread if one of Kinder Morgan’s Aframax-sized tankers spilled 1/5th of its bitumen cargo into Burrard Inlet near the Lion’s Gate Bridge.

In all of its scenarios, Genwest Systems noted how quickly oil spreads in the confined space of Burrard Inlet. Within 72 hours, spilled oil would spread throughout Burrard Inlet to Indian Arm, the Port Moody Arms and to the outer harbour and beyond, with winds and tides spreading them even further. 

100,000 Seabirds and the Pacific Orca Pod at Risk

An additional study on the impact of a Kinder Morgan bitumen spill on local wildlife was released on Monday. Titled “Fate and Effect of Oil Spills from the Trans Mountain Expansion Project in Burrard Inlet and the Fraser River Estuary,” the report finds that the “extraordinarily high densities and numbers of sea‐ and shorebirds, marine mammals, and fish make them especially vulnerable to potentially devastating mortalities should a major oil spill occur in Burrard Inlet or the Fraser River estuary.” 

With 90 per cent of spilled oil likely to reach shorelines within 48 hours, the intertidal zones of beaches and shorelines become “effective killing zones” for sea and shorebirds. In particular, a large diluted bitumen spill near the Fraser River estuary, could potentially kill more than 100,000 birds, plus other nearby mammals. At the same time, large numbers of marine mammals including Harbour seals and porpoises — plus the southern resident Orca population — could perish. The orca pod, if affected, may risk extinction altogether. 

Kinder Morgan Responds

As media began to cover the release of the reports, Kinder Morgan forwarded an email comment to Burnaby Now. It reads: 

"The terminal in Burnaby has been operating safely for 60 years and through our maintenance, prevention and emergency preparedness programs, we are confident in our ability to prevent and respond to all kinds of incidents,” said Michael Davies, a senior director with the company. “Trans Mountain filed a preliminary risk assessment for Burnaby terminal as part of the National Energy Board review of our proposed expansion. It concludes that through design and good management practices the risk of a fire at the terminal is low. We encourage feedback on our proposed expansion and will be reviewing the report from the Burnaby Fire Department in more detail and would welcome a discussion with them to better understand and address their concerns and questions."

It is worth noting that while Kinder Morgan’s preliminary risk assessment is available online, their accident/spill preparedness plans cannot be compared against the reports from the Burnaby Fire Department or the City of Vancouver as the company has filed legal documents to prevent the public from seeing them.

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