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An aging pipeline plagued with safety problems and leaks continues to operate near Canada’s largest cities, despite repeated violations and serious warnings from two high-ranking officials at the federal energy regulator that it should be shut down and repaired.
The company, Trans-Northern Pipelines Inc., and its pipeline infrastructure are jointly owned by three of the planet’s largest oil companies — Imperial Oil, Royal Dutch Shell, and Suncor.
The regulator, Canada’s National Energy Board, found that the major Ontario and Quebec pipeline was a threat to public safety after a “number of pipeline releases and overpressure incidents” that prompted it to respond with three separate safety orders in 2009 and 2010.
After the problems continued to escalate, the NEB issued a new safety order on Sept. 20, 2016 that allowed the operator, Trans-Northern Pipeline Inc., to keep its line in service near the homes of millions of Canadians while reducing its operating pressure by 10 per cent. The NEB also imposed a set of conditions requiring the company to conduct additional inspections, engineering assessments and improve its safety practices.
Pipeline links to Pearson and Trudeau airports in Toronto and Montreal
The pipeline carries up to 172,900 barrels of refined fuel products every day connecting to major airports such as Toronto’s Pearson International Airport and Montreal’s Trudeau airport. It also connects to the Ottawa region and the reduced pressure order has already been linked to gasoline shortages and higher prices at the pumps in Ontario and Quebec during the recent Thanksgiving long weekend.
Two members of the Board protested the decision to keep the pipeline running, slamming the Richmond Hill, Ontario-based operator for breaking rules and putting public safety at risk.
The Board members, James Ballem, a former provincial cabinet minister from PEI and Mike Richmond, a Toronto lawyer who is from Montreal, said they believed the decision to allow it to continue operating was a bad idea, recommending a temporary shut down until the company cleans up its act.
“TNPI has had six years to comply with numerous Safety Orders issued by the Board, but they have failed to fully comply,” wrote Ballem and Richmond in a dissenting opinion that was attached to the NEB decision from Sept. 20. “We are not confident that yet another similar Safety Order will guarantee that the changes necessary to make the pipeline as safe as possible will actually be made this time.”
Reached by phone on Monday morning, Trans-Northern’s manager of regulatory and external affairs Gail Sharko asked National Observer to email questions, but then did not immediately respond with any new information on the company’s progress in responding to the safety order.
Ballem and Richmond slammed the operator for violating federal rules.
“We agree with the Majority that if and when all of the measures described in the Amending Safety Order are implemented, the pipeline system will be as safe as possible. However, until those safety measures are fully implemented, it would have been our preference to have the pipeline system shut down in the interim because TNPI’s current operational controls do not meet the requirements of the National Energy Board Onshore Pipeline Regulations or CSA Z662-15.”
(CSA Z662-15 is the latest edition of the Canadian Standards Association safety code for pipeline operators. The code describes all of the technical rules that pipelines companies must follow in Canada in order to meet government rules and legislation. The safety code is approved by a committee made up primarily of industry engineers and executives.)
Landowners who live near the Trans-Northern line, say this is yet another example that demonstrates that Canada’s NEB is a weak federal regulator that treats oil companies like customers instead of forcing them to follow safety rules. They noted that the pattern was also reflected in National Observer's recent investigation into the emergency safety order over substandard parts.
“There are a number of examples like this that are accumulating,” said Lorraine Caron, a former spokeswoman for a Quebec advocacy group, Citizens au Courants, who lives in a suburb, west of Montreal, a few kilometres away from the Trans-Northern pipeline route.
In late June, Caron and some of her neighbours discovered that pieces of the Trans-Northern pipeline had started sticking out of the ground near a stream, about five kilometres away from the Ottawa River. After they went public with their concerns, the NEB announced on Twitter that it was sending inspectors.
The regulator later said that temporary measures taken were adequately protecting the environment around the Trans-Northern pipeline.
But a few hundred kilometres away, near Grafton, Ontario a rural community East of Toronto, two landowners speculated that there might be political pressure to keep the pipeline running because any shutdown could cause significant disruptions for its oil industry owners and for consumers.
Landowners: Why don't they shut this rotten pipeline down?
Bev Dahmer and Brenda Free own and operate a farm on land that is used by several pipeline operators. The two landowners have had a series of problems after some excavation work by Enbridge Inc. — Canada’s largest pipeline company — in 2012 that uncovered gasoline contamination. This prompted a series of investigations, without any resolution. The contamination occurred east of their property on a neighbour's land and was traced back to a spill from the Trans-Northern pipeline in 1962, they said.
“They (the NEB officlals) are handling it very poorly,” said Dahmer in an interview. “Basically the NEB hasn't been following up with us as to what has been happening.”
She also said that Trans-Northern hasn’t been responding to concerns of local landowners and is “dancing around every safety order” while the NEB is failing to enforce the rules.
“I’m not really sure why they’re reluctant to shut this rotten pipeline down,” Dahmer said. “I believe that Trans-Northern is doing everything in their power to shirk their responsibility.”
The three companies that own the pipeline operator — Imperial Oil, Shell Canada, and Suncor — declined to provide details about whether they had any interactions with the NEB over Trans-Northern.
“Imperial is both a customer and a shareholder in Trans-Northern Pipelines Inc. and we are engaged directly with TNPI regarding their response to the NEB order,” said Imperial Oil spokeswoman Killeen Kelly.
Shell Canada and Suncor also both referred National Observer to Trans-Northern for responses to questions.
The NEB did not immediately respond to questions asking whether economic considerations factored into its decision not to shut down the pipeline.