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Counsel for the province of British Columbia Christopher Jones, right, and Martin Gertsma question Enbridge personnel at hearings into the company’s proposed Northern Gateway Pipeline, in Prince George, B.C. Wednesday, Oct. 10, 2012.JONATHAN HAYWARD/The Canadian Press

British Columbia is attacking Enbridge Inc. for its failure to detect most recent leaks on its U.S. pipelines, raising questions about the company's ability to spot oil spills in remote stretches of its proposed $6-billion Northern Gateway project.

Between 2002 and 2012, oil spilled from Enbridge pipelines in the United States 31 times, according to U.S. regulatory documents raised by the B.C. government at a federal hearing into the Gateway pipeline.

Only three of those spills were detected by the company's automated leak detection systems. And of the six largest spills, none were pinpointed by those systems.

Numbers like those raise "some concerns about the ability of leak detection systems to actually detect leaks," said Christopher Jones, a lawyer with the B.C. government who questioned Enbridge about its performance.

Gateway's safety is a critical consideration for the federal agencies reviewing Gateway. On Wednesday, they were in Prince George, where Enbridge and its consultants face questions from critics this week for the first time on B.C. soil.

If nothing else, those questions have made clear the challenge of keeping oil inside a pipe operating up to 2,000 pounds per square inch of pressure when something goes wrong.

It is an issue that is set against the pipeline industry's overwhelming record of safe operations – Enbridge transports 99.9996 per cent of its crude without incident.

The difficulty in finding and stopping spills nonetheless serves, for British Columbia, as a bracing reminder of the potential consequences when a pipe does begin to lose oil.

Small pinhole leaks, Enbridge acknowledged at the hearing, are very difficult to detect, even with cutting-edge technology.

Even the best equipment can only spot a spill amounting to between 1 per cent and 3 per cent of the flow over a two-hour period, which could total 208,000 litres, or 1,300 barrels. A slow leak flowing below the 1-per-cent threshold could release some 400,000 litres in 24 hours.

Ray Doering, manager of engineering for Northern Gateway, acknowledged that shut-off valves on Northern Gateway would be spaced such that, in a catastrophic rupture, two million litres could escape into environmentally sensitive areas. It would also take up to 13 minutes to activate those valves, with a 10-minute window to ascertain there is a problem, and three minutes for a valve to fully activate.

Mr. Jones, the B.C. lawyer, raised further concerns: With long stretches of Gateway travelling through remote territory, "detection by people who may be nearby pipeline will be relatively restricted," he said. And northern B.C. has long winters: Will the ability of aerial patrols to spot leaks "be limited where there is snow cover?"

Enbridge acknowledged those were potential issues. But Barry Callele, director of pipeline control systems and leak detection for Enbridge, said: "We're looking at other technologies that could be deployed if you're doing a ground surveillance or an aerial surveillance, so augmenting visual with technology." The company could also increase the frequency of internal pipe inspections.

Then there's the construction quality of the pipe. Gateway will employ more valves than any other pipeline built, and Enbridge has committed to using thicker steel, a key factor in spill prevention.

It is also working to upgrade its spill detection technology, embarking on a research testing program to determine what works and what does not. Some new tools could detect spills as small as one litre per hour in sensitive locations, although Enbridge has not determined how broadly it will employ those sensors.

"We're going down the path of getting empirical evidence, and that takes time," Mr. Callele said. He added: "If we find technology that substantially improves our leak detection capability, cost will not be a factor."

Northern Gateway, he said, "will have one of the best-instrumented pipeline systems not only in North America, but probably the world."

What is clear is that those reassurances have done little to quiet the angst many in B.C. feel about Gateway.

One woman, who gave her name only as Gale, interrupted the Wednesday hearing at one point, shouting "I object" in response to a statement by Enbridge that it stands by its control room procedures. The hearing was briefly halted while the woman mounted a loud protest.

Some attended the hearing at personal cost. Murray Minchin, with a group called Douglas Channel Watch, took a week of unpaid leave from work as a mail carrier and drove eight hours from Kitimat, B.C., to attend the Prince George hearings with his family so he could question Enbridge.

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