After nearly four months of clean up and expert analysis, a major Canadian oil company has announced the cause of a catastrophic pipeline leak that spilled more than 220,000 litres of oil into the North Saskatchewan River earlier this year.
"Ground movement" is to blame for the disaster, said Husky Energy, whose 19-year-old pipeline leaked early on July 21 near Maidonstone, Sask., contaminating the drinking water source of 70,000 people and killing more than 60 birds, fish, and small mammals.
But a collection of images obtained by National Observer and reviewed by pipeline engineering experts at the request of the National Observer, challenges whether the Calgary-based company provided correct information in reports submitted last Thursday to the Saskatchewan government regulator. The experts who provided assessments, based in part on photos taken by First Nations officials, were also skeptical about whether the company and regulator accurately reported how much oil actually leaked, what caused the spill, and whether it could have been prevented with better planning, maintenance and oversight of the leaky pipeline.
And with many critics casting doubts about whether the Saskatchewan government is on top of the situation, a group of First Nations in the central part of the prairie province have taken spill response — and holding Husky accountable for the incident — into their own hands. They are concerned that the oil slick has compromised valuable cultural and economic resources, and they captured the photos of the pipeline spill that they believe have confirmed their fears.
Husky Energy has declined to comment on this story, and has not responded to National Observer’s questions and emails since August.
"I have nothing to say," Don Lemna, manager of regulatory affairs for Husky Energy said over the phone after repeated attempts to reach him via email failed.
The fallout from the spill is also inconvenient for Saskatchewan Premier Brad Wall at a time when he has gone on a political mission to defend Canada's oil and gas industry while opposing federal efforts to make polluters pay for carbon emissions. Wall's office did not return requests for comment on this story, or on how he felt spill response could have been handled differently, and the ministry responsible for investigating the spill would not comment until it releases its own findings.
Pipeline built on unstable ground
The Calgary-based company submitted its metallurgical and geotechnical reports to the Saskatchewan government last week, after getting a one-month extension to complete the package. Although experts say the company should have been able to produce the report rapidly, at an Oct. 21 press conference, the government said it gave Husky an extension because it considered it to be a “major piece of scientific and engineering research” with “a lot of work involved."
According to Husky's engineering reports, "the break was a sudden, one‐time event in a section of the pipe that had buckled due to the force of ground movement." Corrosion, material defects, or other deficiencies had nothing to do it with it, the company's consultants concluded, adding that the ground movement — or landslide — was mostly likely caused by lots of rain, weak clay formations in the area, and land features that prevented adequate drainage.
It rained heavily on July 11 (10 days prior to the leak) they noted, which may have been the weather event that set the soil slide in motion.
But the consultants also found that the 16-inch pipeline was at least partially located in a region whose geographic formation is described as "susceptible to failures," and having "extremely weak layers," with an active landslide complex located just east of the pipeline corridor.
Pipeline safety engineers who reviewed Husky's reports for the National Observer, and examined exclusive photos of the spill site itself, believe that the entire catastrophe could have been prevented with improved maintenance, integrity testing, and standard prevention measures.
Leak may have been preventable
"It shouldn’t have been built there or it should have been built somewhere where there’s less likelihood of ground movement," said Don Deaver, a Texas-based professional engineer whose resume includes more than 33 years of experience with Exxon and its affiliates. “It’s (Husky's) job to understand the geotechnical hazards in the pipeline and provide a piping system, and upgrade and maintain in a manner that’s resistant to it.”
A geotechnical assessment prepared for Husky when the pipeline was built in 1997 determined that the area was "unactive" at the time, but Deaver said at the very least, the company should have taken precautionary measures in such a historically unstable zone. Even if "ground movement" is technically out of Husky's control, he explained, the onus is on the pipeline company to put the right sensors in the ground that predict these occurrences, and regularly survey the area for cracks indicative of subsurface activity.
“Sometimes you have to build parts of (the pipeline) above ground with flexibility to accommodate that type of movement, or you certainly have to have a lot stronger pipe," he told National Observer. "But there are ways to do that... You can’t just say, ‘Oh my God, Mother Nature got us again!’”
Richard Kuprewicz, a California-based certified safety management engineer with 40 years of industry experience, agreed.
“Should they have stayed ahead of this pipeline before it failed due to land movement? The answer is yes," he said. "The question is, what type of land movement is along this pipeline?"
Landslide or 'land creep?'
According to Husky's geotechnical report, put together by an Edmonton-based consultant called Stantec, the earth in the south slope of the North Saskatchewan River near the ruptured pipeline has been moving episodically over the years. The 325-page document estimated some of these movements to be as small as 35 millimetres per year, a speed that varies based with volume of rain or snow melt.
Given the gradual pace of these movements, Kuprewicz, president of a pipeline incident investigative company called Accufacts Inc., questioned the use of the word 'landslide' throughout the report. 'Landslide' tends to imply a breakaway event involving massive quantities of earth and a large amount of force, he explained, but it's more likely that Husky's pipeline buckled as a result of 'land creep,' which involves minor movements over time, as described in the report.
Land creep is much easier to monitor and accommodate through preventative measures, he said, and if Husky's pipeline had experienced a true, out-of-control landslide, it likely would have suffered a major rupture as opposed to springing a simple leak, Kuprewicz said.
"From what I see here, they used the word 'landslide,' so it’s not wrong, but it could convey a misinformation to a decision-maker," Kuprewicz told National Observer. "These kind of failures are associated with fairly slow forces over time."
He also estimated that the leak had been going on for some time before it was reported, as it appeared to have had enough time to soak through all the soil in the area before spilling into the North Saskatchewan River. Husky's geotechnical report estimated that the brittle cracking in the pipeline had most likely occurred very recently, but Kuprewicz said 'recently' could still mean weeks or months.
"I don’t know the answer, but it’s more likely longer than shorter," he said.
Given that no one has released an exact date for the start of the leak, he also questioned how Husky could have determined with any amount of certainty, exactly how much oil had spilled. The company believes 225,000 litres of oil were released, roughly 15,000 of which remains unaccounted for after clean up finished for the winter.
Kuprewicz said the numbers seem low: "It would be fair to ask, given that number, how did you get to that?"
“You could smell oil everywhere”
Since the very beginning of the crude oil pipeline leak's detection in July, central Saskatchewan First Nations have questioned Husky Energy's spill numbers. While the Calgary-based company reported that the vast majority of its leak had been contained, First Nations continued to find oil sheen and tar-covered logs on the banks of their reserves both east and west of the spill site by the North Saskatchewan River.
Roughly nine days after the pipeline sprung the devastating spill, Little Pine Chief Wayne Semaganis and his brother, Graham Wuttunee, wandered onto the site to catch a glimpse of the disaster that had contaminated their waters. They weren’t supposed to be there, Semaganis explained, but driving a big truck like all the other employees, they blended into the crowd and even signed in at the entrance.
“You could smell oil everywhere,” he recalled. “You could tell that it’s not an overnight spill for the ground to be that saturated. There was about a metre or two metres of ground dug up, but it was all soaked in oil.”
He, along with Wuttunee — Hereditary Chief of the Red Pheasant First Nation and a pipeline construction worker with 30 years of experience — took pictures of the dig site with their cell phones and shared them with National Observer. Wuttunee returned to the site regularly until late August to take more photos and document the spill response efforts.
And he agreed with the engineers views that some inadequate oversight on the pipeline appeared to have contributed to the leak.
“The main question here is the testing, the frequency of the testing and the records of that testing," he explained. "That should be made public for all industry, not just Husky. The engineering and construction weren’t on the same page.”
The energy company's metallurgical failure analysis, released last Thursday, reported that five in-line inspections had been performed on the pipeline since its construction, the most recent of which was in January 2015. Husky declined to tell National Observer how often inspections were legally required based on the operating pressure of the pipeline, service fluid, terrain, and density of population near the pipe, among other factors.
The company's silence, along with the photos, led Wuttunee and other pipeline engineering experts contacted by National Observer to question whether Husky had violated safety rules before the buckling occurred.
Did Husky break construction codes?
Federal and provincial regulations require all pipeline companies, including Husky, to follow a safety code established by the Canadian Standards Association. These codes of construction for pipelines, CSA Z662-15, were written by a committee of industry engineers, executives and government officials, and are legally binding both in Alberta where Husky is based, and in Saskatchewan, where the 16-inch pipeline failed.
These codes require companies to have a “pipeline system integrity management program” that includes measures to monitor for conditions that can lead to failures, and eliminate or mitigate these conditions. They list corrosion, mechanical damage, coating damage, unstable slopes, and stress corrosion cracking as examples of conditions that can lead to failure.
A summary of Husky's engineering reports confirmed that it had such a program in place for the pipeline that leaked, and it included periodic in‐line Inspection, monthly pigging, corrosion inhibition, fluid analysis, bacteria testing, aerial inspections, coatings and cathodic protection. It also asserts that the pipeline was designed and constructed in accordance with the CSA codes, and has performed since 1997 without incident.
Yet despite these assertions, pipeline engineer Evan Vokes, who blew the whistle on TransCanada Corp.’s pipeline safety practices and senior management in 2012, said that a pool of water should never be gathering in a pipeline's right of way, as demonstrated by puddles in the photo below. Husky would not confirm whether National Observer's photos even show its pipeline, or whether its pipeline — near a river — is in a particularly high-risk area that can be reasonably expected to be patrolled regularly.
“This water along the trench is absolutely saturated,” said Vokes. “The pipe is allowing a water conduit to flow along it, which would contribute to a bank collapse… Any designer knows that you're not supposed to let water run with the pipe. Any ground water should run off the right of way.”
Pipeline should never have buckled
The ground movement that contributed to the buckling appears to violate the CSA code requirement to handle pipeline ditch spoil in a manner that allows for “re-establishment of the soil integrity,” Vokes explained. The buckle itself, he added, should have been prevented through design of the pipeline, and even if it weren’t, code stipulations (Section 10.10.8.2) require Husky to detect such failures, document, monitor, and remove or repair them.
“From an engineering point of view, it tells you that you’re actually supposed to make sure that the soil will support the pipe,” he said. “That one obviously was not checked for a long time.”
Dennis Maki, a retired pipeline materials engineer with decades of experience in pipeline metallurgy and welding design, agreed that the ground movement or "soil slides problem" should have been caught if the pipeline had been patrolled regularly, despite what Husky said in its report.
"I see this failure as a failure in both the original engineering design and company operations later," he said via email. "Pipeline (right of ways) are not supposed to be turned into man-made creeks that cause slope subsidence and buckling failures and ruptures of the pipelines contained within them. To make it short... they supplied the water for their own failure."
Stantec's report for Husky however, says that "remedial stabilization measures were considered infeasible" in the pipeline's environment given the size and complexity of landslides in the area, the fact that even small disturbances could have facilitated additional ground movement, and buttressing would have included a "very significant cost."
Both Kuprewicz and Maki said re-emphasized that pipeline should not have been located there.
"If you are in an area of slope instability one doesn’t route a pipeline in such an area," Kuprewicz said.
"The remedial measures should have been done up front or the line should not have been built," Maki said. "The cost would have been low... nowhere near the hundreds of millions involved in cleaning up the mess. The comment is a cop-out, and the operator can't wiggle off the responsibility hook because of it."
National Observer has requested more information on the spill details using access to information and freedom of information legislation, but all provincial requests have been denied while the matter is under investigation, and the Environment and Climate Change Canada (ECCC) has asked for an extension.
What consequences could Husky face?
Neither ECCC nor the Saskatchewan government would comment on the details of this story until their investigations are complete. While the federal government is searching for violations of the Fisheries Act and Migratory Bird Convention Act, the province is examining possible breaches of the Saskatchewan Environmental Management and Protection Act.
"Once we have the final report completed by the ministry, I think we would be in a better position to speak to what may be some of the consequences to Husky for this," Saskatchewan's Minister of Energy and Resources, Dustin Duncan, told reporters during a press conference last Thursday. "But aside from what they’ve already paid out in terms of communities and things of that nature, I think it’s too soon to speculate what that might be."
Theoretically, Husky and its officials could be facing massive fines or even jail time if found guilty of breaching federal wildlife legislation. For a first offence against the Fisheries Act, for example, it could be paying out anywhere between $100,000 and $6 million, and a summary conviction related to the Migratory Bird Convention Act could include a prison sentence of up to six months.
These consequences would be separate from those of provincial regulators of engineering practices in Alberta and Saskatchewan, which would not disclose whether Husky is under investigation in the first place given that no disciplinary hearing or measures have taken place to date. Husky Oil Operations Limited holds an authorization certificate and permit, respectively, from the Association of Professional Engineers of Saskatchewan (APEGS) and the Association of Professional Engineers of Alberta (APEGA), both of which have the authority to investigate issues of professional incompetence or misconduct.
Phillip Mulder, director of communications for APEGA, said that while Husky Energy is Calgary-based, APEGS has primary jurisdiction over the pipeline spill near Maidstone, since it occurred in Saskatchewan. The applicable legislation in this case is Saskatchewan's Engineering and Geoscience Professions Act (EGP Act), which forbids any engineer — including pipeline engineers — from practicing in a way that disregards “the welfare of members of the public served by the profession,” is “harmful to the best interests of the public or members,” or “tends to harm the standing of the profession.” Alberta has its own version of the legislation.
Non-compliance with these regulations would typically result in an investigation, APEGS executive director and registrar Robert McDonald confirmed via email, but a written complaint must be made in order to launch an investigation. APEGS said it could not launch an investigation based on the photos obtained by National Observer alone, even if they imply negligence or poor engineering practice, although APEGA said it might consider such information before deciding whether to investigate.
Mulder also confirmed that any violation of the EGP Act would not necessarily mean that Husky would lose its permit to practice in Alberta. McDonald of APEGS said that his organization has not revoked a single permit in the last two decades against the holder of a certificate of authorization.
Vokes, the TransCanada whistleblower, found it incredulous that despite an average of two oil spills per day in Alberta and 20 per year in Saskatchewan, permits are not regularly taken away from oil companies.
"I worked for a company that couldn't follow a single rule," he told National Observer. "Why does APEGA not act? (Husky) failed. They had a big leak, they got a report card from Mother Nature with an ‘F’ for fail for the engineering component."
Topping off the list of questions the engineers have about the spill, which flunked five water quality tests and contaminated the drinking water of roughly 70,000 people, is why Husky took so long to disclose its cause in the first place.
"Something else is going on here"
After reviewing First Nations' photos of Husky's spill site, pipeline safety engineers contacted by National Observer were able estimate within minutes what Husky took nearly four months to confirm in its reports. Upon digging its pipeline out of the ground, the company should have been able to "eyeball it" just as quickly, said the Texas-based engineer, Deaver.
“All you have to do is cut out and look at it,” he insisted. “Clean it up, send it to a metallurgical lab or some place where they can clean it up, inspect it, measure the wall thickness, look at it, take photos of it.”
"Something else is going on here," California-based pipeline safety engineer, Kuprewicz, based in California. "I’ve been in very serious investigations, and they were criminal investigations, lots of money involved and I’m sorry, you uncover the pipe, you take a picture of it. You uncover some of the wrap, you cut the section out. It doesn’t take rocket science to figure out what the most likely cause is."
Husky Energy has recently reported that shoreline cleanup operations on the North Saskatchewan River are complete, and monitoring activities will continue throughout the winter and into 2017. On its website, the company thanked local communities and First Nations for their "extraordinary assistance" during the process.
Chief Semaganis said he shared the photos with National Observer not to attack Husky, or any other company, but to hold oil companies and their regulators to account:
"It's about ensuring the people we put our faith and trust in — that develop the system of safety measures and also about the regulators — if they’re not fulfilling the faith that we put in them, somebody has to be held responsible, that’s all it is.”
In the meantime, Husky Energy has announced several measures to make sure it doesn't happen again, including leak detection system adjustments to reduce the number of false alarms, design consideration for stress relief through excavation, and additional monitoring technologies such as inclinometers. It will likely replace the pipelines that were compromised with a thicker-walled pipe, and incorporate trench improvements over the remaining three-year lifespan of the lines.