Alberta’s Energy Resources Conservation Board has released its findings following the investigation of the Rainbow pipeline spill in April 2011, and the results highlight longstanding issues both with Alberta oil companies and the bodies that monitor them.
In a story reminiscent of the Enbridge 6B pipeline rupture that dumped 20,000 barrels of crude oil into the Kalamazoo River in 2010, the report outlines the sequence of events from the initial alarm to the final shutdown.
Abnormal operating conditions were first detected at 6:32 pm on April 28, 2011. No fewer than five leak detection alarms went off between 6:35 pm and 7:22 pm that evening, and the pipeline was shut down and restarted three times before the flow of oil was finally shut off for good at 2:50 am on April 29.
The ERCB attributes this failure to heed the alarms to “a bias toward inaction,” saying Plains Midstream Canada, the pipeline’s operator, prioritized the flow of oil over following their own safety procedures and failed to appreciate the impact a spill would have on the area and its residents.
During the investigation, the board tried to interview the operator in charge at the time of the spill, but the company informed investigators that the individual is no longer employed at Plains.
The report stated that the location of the breach contributed to the size of the spill, describing it as “very challenging” due to wet muskeg and thick forest, underscoring one of the primary concerns raised throughout the Enbridge Joint Review Panel hearings: the accessibility of the of the proposed Northern Gateway pipeline in the event of an accident.
Prior to restarting the pipeline, Plains was required to fulfill a number of conditions including: conduct weekly aerial monitoring of the pipeline; implement a new risk assessment procedure to be incorporated into all operational and procedural documents; and demonstrate that enhanced pipeline maintenance protocol, particularly backfill practices, be fully integrated into standard procedure.
Perhaps more difficult for Plains to fulfill is the requirement to “successfully communicate to all Plains staff that the organization will fully support a console operator’s decision to shut down a pipeline.”
In addition to chastising Plains Midstream Canada, the report illuminates the lax standard to which the company and the pipeline’s previous owner, Imperial Oil, have been held.
Melina Laboucan Massimo, a climate and energy campaigner for Greenpeace and a member of the Lubicon Cree First Nation whose traditional territory has been directly affected by the spill, criticized the Alberta government for failing to respond to numerous calls for consultation with environmental organizations and the public at large.
Greenpeace campaigner Melina Laboucan Massimo speaks with government officials at the scene of the spill in 2011. Photo: Greenpeace.ca
“The Energy Resources Conservation Board’s report is a damning indictment of pipeline safety in Alberta as yet another pipeline company has failed to protect Alberta’s environment and people and only received the lightest slap on the wrist,” she said in a statement Tuesday.
“This sends a message that pipeline companies can cut corners on safety, leaving our communities and our environment to pay the price.”
The Rainbow pipeline was originally licensed for crude oil in 1967, and Plains Midstream purchased it in 2008. The report points to an accumulation of failures spanning decades that led to the pumping of 28,000 barrels of sweet crude into the Peace River region of Northern Alberta.
The site of the rupture was one of nearly 100 segments to have been repaired over the lifetime of the pipeline, and this is not the first time repairs of this kind have failed.
As a result of the pipeline’s failure, 4.5 million litres of oil were released into the local wetlands, making this spill the worst ERCB had seen in over 30 years.
After the 2011 spill, the ERCB ordered Plains to conduct integrity digs on a total of 10 sites, and the company found cracks in the repair sleeves in all 10 cases.
The ECRB determined that Plains should have acquired all historical records of pipeline maintenance and failures upon taking over operations of the Rainbow pipeline in 2008, but even without those records, investigators said, Plains should have understood the risks involved in the aging infrastructure.
Further, had the company conducted proper inspections, it would have caught the cracks long before the spill occurred.
Inadequate training, supervision and communication also factored into the magnitude of the spill, the report noted, prompting the ERCB to require the company to complete a crisis communication audit as well as an emergency response exercise by the end of April.
No fines have been levied against Plains.