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A TransCanada whistleblower is alarmed by the National Energy Board's (NEB) recent investigation of the energy infrastructure company, saying it downplays concerns about pipeline safety and regulation compliance.
The 55-page NEB report concludes that 10 of the 16 allegations filed against TransCanada could not be verified, and that public safety and environment was never at risk.
"It's an absolute joke," said Rick, a former TransCanada worker who filed the allegations. (His name has been changed to protect his identity).
Rick had worked for TransCanada on and off for 20 years since beginning his career there fresh out of high school at age 17. He was let go from TransCanada in September 2014, upon reporting to the NEB about TransCanada's "non-compliance" with pipeline codes and regulations.
Shaken by his own experience as a whistleblower, Rick said he believes the current regulatory system for pipelines is flawed.
He said two of the the NEB workers he spoke to were formerly with TransCanada themselves, and that he feels they were not fulfilling their duty as impartial regulators of the pipeline industry.
Rick said he had worked on pipeline "blow-outs" since the 1990s, and was trained hands-on by TransCanada over the years.
He only began to seriously question his company's practices after he took a course in pipeline engineering procedures in March 2014. It was then that Rick started to bring up concerns to an NEB engineer, after realizing that some of the practices he was seeing in the field were not in compliance with the regulations taught in the course.
For months, he said, he met with NEB engineers — mostly "after hours" over drinks and dinner — and talked to them about TransCanada's regulation compliance issues. He said he had a duo-tang binder about "one inch think" full of photos and documents, which he showed the engineers to discuss possible concerns about the pipelines he saw.
"You should have seen the faces of NEB engineers when I showed them," Rick said. "They couldn't believe it."
He said the conversations were mostly friendly, though his wife found it bizarre that the meetings would take place at odd hours in Calgary and Edmonton, and seemingly off the record.
"Where they started breaking my trust is around October ," he said.
Rick was at his son's hockey practice when he received a call from one of the NEB engineers, who allegedly accused him of working with a whistleblower and former pipeline engineer, Evan Vokes, who accused TransCanada of code violations in 2011.
Rick was stunned. He'd never been in contact with Vokes before, and didn't know why this name was coming up.
"I said, 'What do you mean? I've never even contacted Evan before. I trust you guys. You're helping me — right?'"
One month earlier, in September, Rick had been to the NEB office and asked to file his complaint. He said he had submitted a total of 12 allegations—ranging from "mechanical damage to pipeline" to "exposed, cracked pipe"— and doesn't know how it became 16 in the final report.
He finally got in contact with Vokes for advice in late December 2014. No one else had gone public with complaints against the company.
"It got out of hand. I just wanted to do my job," he said. "I just wanted to do the right thing."
Vokes said he later looked at Rick's complaints, photos and documents, and believes the claims were substantial.
"I'd say it was substantiated," Vokes said. "The whistleblower didn't write all that for entertainment value."
When asked whether the NEB ever visited any of the pipeline sites in the complaints or if it relied on information provided by TransCanada, NEB spokesperson Darin Barter stated:
"The NEB panel applied equal weight to evidence brought forward by the whistleblower and to evidence obtained through inspections, a 2014 NEB audit and specific information requests. It's important to note that the allegations were based on past claims of non-compliance."
Another NEB spokesperson, Craig Loewen, said that the Board "takes its mandate to protect public safety and the environment seriously."
"Due to the seriousness of the allegations made by the whistleblower, the NEB, through a three member panel, conducted a formal investigation under section 12 of the National Energy Board Act," he said, noting that the NEB conducted a "comprehensive, evidence-based and scientific investigation of every allegation and has made the results public."
Who watches the regulators?
Rick eventually filed a complaint against NEB engineers with the Association of Professional Engineers and Geoscientists of Alberta (APEGA) in 2015, for their handling of the initial TransCanada complaint. APEGA confirmed it was investigating senior engineers employed by NEB, but said the investigation was still ongoing.
"It's about professional members at the time were employed by the NEB," APEGA spokesperson Philip Mulder said. "We, like a lot of other people received a copy of the report. That investigation is ongoing."
He could not reveal details about that investigation at the time of publication.
One of the NEB staff member's lawyers had sent the whistleblower a threatening letter in April, demanding he withdraw his complaint to APEGA. The NEB did not provide comment in regard to their staff member, saying the question was better directed to APEGA, although the subject of the complaint is not with APEGA.
When asked for comment about the investigation, TransCanada spokesperson Davis Sheremata said it would be "inappropriate" to comment about the whistleblower, but that the NEB's investigation found that the company did everything it had to do to keep its pipelines safe.
"We cooperated fully with the NEB in its investigation of the allegations that took place in 2014 and early 2015," said Sheremata.
"As outlined in the NEB’s investigation report that was issued this morning, TransCanada shares their focus on protecting the safety of the public, our employees and the environment, and we support the report’s conclusions that not a single allegation involved a violation of NEB regulations.
"Of the 16 allegations made by this one individual, 10 were found to be entirely unsubstantiated, which means they had no basis in fact. In addition, not a single allegation was found to be completely substantiated.... No allegations involved a pipeline incident and no natural gas or oil was released. The NEB has determined that no enforcement actions were required and all allegations are closed."
"The public expects TransCanada to go above and beyond when it comes to building safe and reliable infrastructure," Sheremata said. "That is our commitment."
Rick said it was unfortunate that workers' concerns about safety seemed to be inadequately dealt with by regulators.
Although the NEB states it has dealt with 23 whistleblowers' complaints since 2012, he wonders how many led to major investigations.
"How many of the 23 whistleblowers got scared off?" he asked. "Employees are just scared for their jobs. They have to feed their families. It's cheaper to do things the right way [with pipelines]. You don't have to fix it later."