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The last time Washington State officials put Kinder Morgan through a cross-border training exercise for a pipeline spill, the company earned high marks for its response. The biggest concern that emerged was the lack of preparation by officials on the Canadian side of the Puget Sound pipeline.

The 111-kilometre-long pipeline – a spur from the Trans Mountain system that Canada intends to buy from Kinder Morgan – delivers Alberta crude oil to Puget Sound refineries. The company is regularly required by Washington State’s Department of Ecology to conduct different types of spill-response drills on the American portion of the line.

In May, 2017, Kinder Morgan conducted a mandatory “worst case scenario“ exercise in Whatcom County, Wash., to demonstrate its ability to respond to an oil spill in a complex arena involving agencies on both sides of the border.

The participants simulated an early-morning spill of 3,024 barrels of heavy synthetic crude oil in the Sumas River, which crosses the border at Abbotsford in British Columbia’s Fraser Valley. That drill left Washington State officials concerned that Canada is not prepared for heavy oil to sink in a marine environment.

“Kinder Morgan brought together highly skilled staff to form a co-operative spill management team,” the state’s drill co-ordinator noted in a report following the exercise. “The opportunity ... has advanced our understanding of the complexities of such a response.”

Kinder Morgan’s response team was required to focus on oil sinking in the river, a “best practice“ in the eyes of Washington State. “It is unclear why the non-floating oil detection tactics developed for the U.S. side of the spill scenario were not also planned for the Canadian side,” the report says.

One explanation may be that Canada has a more optimistic outlook of what an oil spill would look like. In a letter sent in April to the B.C. government, federal Environment Minister Catherine McKenna wrote that crude oil – including the diluted bitumen that the expansion project is designed to deliver to the west coast – “will float initially for several days depending on the environmental conditions.”

Washington State officials say their read of the science is different, but that wasn’t the only concern that emerged from last year’s drill. British Columbia and Canada were unable to explain what resources they would offer up in the event of a major spill in a shared waterway.

That should have been addressed in a tactical meeting held during the exercise, state officials concluded. "This would have been an opportunity to talk about why the non-floating oil tactics planned on the Washington side of the river were not also planned for British Columbia, as well as to discuss the sourcing and type of the equipment resources that were planned for use on the British Columbia side.”

In response, the B.C. government agreed that it needs to do better. New requirements were brought into force this spring to test oil-spill contingency plans, including worst-case scenario trials for pipelines. B.C. Environment Minister George Heyman said Sunday that his government continues to work on addressing shortfalls that were revealed in that exercise.

He said more scientific study is needed to determine what will happen to heavy oil in different marine conditions. “We are not comfortable that we have all the knowledge that we need, that Kinder Morgan needs or that the government of Canada needs, to assure British Columbians that we can prevent a catastrophic spill, and that if one happens anyway, we can respond appropriately.“

The Canadian government is poised to become the owner of the Trans Mountain pipeline, including the Puget Sound spur line, because it wants to see the planned expansion of the pipeline completed over the objections of both B.C. and Washington State.

Responding to the concerns identified by U.S. officials following the Sumas River spill exercise, Environment Canada spokesperson Caroline Theriault said Canada established a host of new safety measures as part of its approval for the pipeline expansion project. Kinder Morgan will be required to produce new geographic response plans, for example, and to complete a full-scale emergency response exercise for specific scenarios, she wrote in a statement.

But the transparency required of the company south of the border is not matched in Canada: During the National Energy Board hearings on the pipeline expansion project in 2015, the B.C. government lost its bid to have the full emergency response plans for the Trans Mountain pipeline made public. If the company is ready for a diluted bitumen spill that sinks in the turbulent waters of the Salish Sea, those plans are not evident.

Kinder Morgan couldn’t keep those details a secret in the United States, Linda Pilkey-Jarvis, preparedness manager for Washington State’s Spill Prevention, Preparedness and Response Program, said in an interview. “How are people expected to have any confidence in the system, if that information is not readily available?”

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