It took more than four hours from the time the first alarm noted a possible leak at Kinder Morgan’s tank farm in Abbotsford until a spill was discovered, according to a report released this week by the National Energy Board (NEB).
The NEB, the lead investigative agency looking into the cause of the 90,000-litre spill on Jan. 24 of this year, concluded that proper procedures were not followed that day by Trans Mountain Pipeline ULC (TMPU), which is owned by Kinder Morgan.
The NEB determined that an operator monitoring the TMPU alarm system – based at a control centre in Edmonton – did not deal properly with three alarms that came from one of the Abbotsford tanks.
“A factor that contributed to the amount of crude oil released in the Tank 121 secondary containment area is that the leak was not detected as quickly as it should have been,” the NEB report states.
The operator failed to recognize a drop in the tank’s volume and determined that the first two alarms were false, the report states. He made note of the third alarm for follow-up with the day-shift operator.
The first alarm was noted at 2:39 a.m. on Jan. 24, followed by ones at 3:11 and 4:11 a.m.
The day-shift operator notified a terminal operator at 5:50 a.m., and the leak was discovered exactly an hour later in a tank containment area when that person arrived on site.
The NEB report stated that the alarms were not set at the proper values – information that was not known by the night-shift operator – and this might have contributed to the inappropriate response.
Delays in response time were among the concerns expressed by residents after the spill. Many said they first noticed a strong odour in the area at about 3 a.m., and they questioned why Kinder Morgan did not discover the leak until almost four hours later.
Residents in the Auguston neighbourhood – located near the tank farm – reported that the smell contributed to nausea and headaches, and they were concerned about long-term health implications.
The NEB report concluded that the spill, which was isolated to a containment area and did not cause any environmental damage, was due to a failed gasket, likely damaged by excessive pressure caused from freezing.
The drain valve of the roof drain system was open at the time and allowed crude oil, which could flow through the failed gasket of the roof system, to enter the secondary containment.
The NEB report indicated that the tank was built in 1963 and was last inspected in 1995.
The NEB made a number of recommendations for TMPU to follow. Lexa Hobenshield, spokesperson for Kinder Morgan Canada (KMC), said the company has already implemented these measures, or is in the process of doing so.
“It is important to remember that when oil from a storage tank at the Sumas Mountain Terminal spilled, it was fully contained within an area on the property that was lined with impermeable membrane, no one was hurt, and there was no threat to the public because of the spill,” she said.
The NEB report confirms that TMPU has addressed the findings and has taken corrective action.
“The board is satisfied that these actions are appropriate to prevent the occurrence of similar incidents in the future.”
Michael Hale, a member of the PIPE UP Network opposed to pipeline expansion, said the NEB report is an eye-opener.
“When I ask the company about the risk of spills, they point to the spill at the tank farm in Abbotsford in January this year, which they claimed was ‘quickly contained.’ Over 110,000 litres of a noxious petroleum product were spilled. The more information I get, including this report from National Energy Board, suggests that the containment was not that simple or quick.”
The Sumas terminal is part of the Trans Mountain Pipeline system which brings crude oil from Alberta to terminals that end in Burnaby and Washington State.
Products are temporarily stored along the pipeline in 22 tanks in Kamloops, Abbotsford and Burnaby. Six of them are in Abbotsford, which also has a pump station for the pipeline.
This is not the first time that Kinder Morgan has been criticized for delays following an oil spill. In 2005, a rupture was detected in Abbotsford in the pipeline on the north side of Ward Road, and a total of 210,000 litres of crude oil was released into the surrounding area and into Kilgard Creek.
A follow-up report in 2007, from the Transportation Safety Board of Canada, indicated there had been a delay in response time because the line between the Sumas tank farm and the Sumas pump station was not part of a leak detection system.
That system was then installed, resulting in the pipeline being monitored 24 hours a day.
Operators of the Enbridge’s Northern Gateway Pipeline – which does not run through Abbotsford – faced similar criticism regarding their alarm system, following a pipeline rupture in July 2010 that spilled 20,000 barrels of diluted bitumen into the Kalamazaoo River in Michigan.
A report from the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board concluded that pipeline-monitoring staff in Edmonton did not properly respond to repeated alarms warning of a leak, resulting in a 17-hour delay in the valves being closed.