Trans Mountain pipeline: Vancouver demands spill response answers

Major battle brewing over City of Vancouver, other intervenors wanting full details of Trans Mountain plan

“So we’re learning a lot about this. We’re certainly not experts. We don’t purport to be, but we’re trying to learn as much as we can…this is our first time doing anything like this.” – Sadhu Johnston, deputy city manager, City of Vancouver.

Trans Mountain

Sadhu Johnston, deputy city manager, City of Vancouver.

On Friday, Vancouver released 597 questions it wants answered by Kinder Morgan, which is proposing to expand the Trans Mountain pipeline that runs through Burnaby from 300,000 to 890,000 barrels per day. Most of the questions pertain to the company’s emergency response plan should there be a crude oil spill. The City claims Kinder Morgan failed to answer nearly 150 of the 394 questions submitted in the first round of requests.

Vancouver isn’t alone. The Province of British Columbia, Burnaby, Abbotsford, various environmental groups and individuals all wrote to the National Energy Board late last year complaining about the information they received from Kinder Morgan or supporting the demand for full and complete public disclosure.

The City’s requests are aren’t unreasonable, just premature.

During our interview, Johnston noted that in the event of a pipeline spill – especially a worst case scenario like the huge 2010 Enbridge spill into the Kalamazoo River –  the City will be on the pointy end of the spill response.

Trans Mountain

Train carrying volatile Bakken crude oil derailed and exploded, killing 47 people in Lac Megantic, Que.

“Who decides when an area gets evacuated? Who decides how big that area is? How do we know what kind of vapours might be released? How toxic they are? And whether our first responders could go in the areas where that toxic cloud might be?” Johnston asks.

He says the City needs to be prepared as possible in the event of a disaster, and points to last summer’s catastrophic rail explosion of Bakken crude oil in Lac Megantic, Que. that killed 47 people. While a pipeline spill isn’t likely to kill anyone, Johnston makes the sensible point that the dangers posed by carrying extremely light oil weren’t on municipalities’ radars either until Lac Megantic.

Trans Mountain

Vancouver Mayor Gregor Robertson and Council have not yet taken a position on the Trans Mountain pipeline, says Sandhu Johnston.

The problem here, alluded to in my lede, is that many of the parties who are intervenors in the NEB assessment of the Kinder Morgan proposal and who are asking for more information are newbies to the process.

I asked Sarah Kiley, a communications officer with the NEB, about that process.

Not surprisingly, the NEB review is long (probably more than five years) and Byzantine by its very nature. To make matters even more convoluted, Kiley says the process is evolving in response to public demands. While the NEB angered many by restricting participation in the oral part of the process, Kiley says the Board is actually working to make more information public.

Like the emergency response plans demanded by the City and the Province, which are normally considered proprietary information and not posted publicly, according to Kiley. In response to earlier requests by intervenors, the NEB changed its mind and ordered Kinder Morgan to make the plans public.

Kinder Morgan did so, but not to the satisfaction of the intervenors. The plan was redacted in parts and, in the intervenors’ minds, woefully incomplete.

Trans Mountain

BC Premier Christy Clark.

“We do have questions about the NEB process and transparency in getting all the information that we need to fully evaluate the proposal,” said Johnston.

Premier Christy Clark went further, announcing during a radio interview that one of the Province’s five conditions for approving new pipelines was a robust spill response plan. “If those conditions aren’t met these projects can’t go ahead, and Kinder Morgan has not met the five conditions,” she said. “They need to or it won’t happen.”

Kinder Morgan didn’t mince words in its response: “I think we’ve gone a long way to help address people’s interest and information around this subject,” senior director Michael Davies told the Canadian Press. “It’s not fair to say that there’s any sort of secrets being kept or information not being shared.”

Trans Mountain

Kinder Morgan senior director Michael Davies.

As if the dispute between the parties needed further complications, Kinder Morgan isn’t the party that would actually clean up the spill. That is the responsibility of the Western Canada Marine Response Corporation, which is established under federal legislation and financially supported by industry. The WCMRC is in the process of developing its own plans for how it will respond to spills from Trans Mountain – and the Northern Gateway pipeline if that project is built.

Puzzled BC residents can be forgiven if they ask for a program to keep the players straight.

Kiley sums it up this way: The review process is just started. Kinder Morgan doesn’t even have a detailed pipeline route yet. The company has years of consulting with stakeholders and First Nations – not to mention municipalities like Vancouver and Burnaby. And WCMRC has to develop its spill response plan.

In other words, it’s way too early to have a completed and detailed response plan. Which is why the NEB noted in its Jan. 15 letter to the Province, “On the specific request made, the Board agrees with Trans Mountain that it cannot file information that it does not have and which is not in its possession or control.”

“Our response was, ‘we’re not persuaded at this point in time that we need additional information on the record.’ So we have what we need for this point in the hearing to move forward with our review of the program,” said Kiley.

The lesson for Johnston and his counterparts in other governments and organizations is to have patience. As Northern Gateway proved, an NEB review is a marathon, not a sprint.

But not too much patience. As Kiley admits, the NEB is revising its processes and wants to be more responsive to public concerns.

Pressure from Vancouver et. al. may be what ultimately ensures the Trans Mountain emergency response plan is completed to everyone’s satisfaction and made available to the public in a timely fashion.

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