If fire erupted in the expanded tank farm proposed as part of Kinder Morgan's Trans Mountain pipeline, it could create a nightmare scenario, with flames engulfing Burnaby Mountain and causing a massive urban evacuation.
That dire warning was issued Wednesday in a report by Chris Bowcock, deputy chief of the Burnaby Fire Department, who did a risk assessment of the tank farm, which would double in size, to 26 storage tanks, under the Trans Mountain proposal.
"I didn't intend it to frighten [anyone]," he said of his report.
In a brief statement, Kinder Morgan Canada defended the safety of the proposed tank farm and said the company will work with the fire department to address any concerns.
The assessment, which Burnaby will file with the National Energy Board (NEB) in the review now under way, says by adding 13 tanks to the existing oil storage facility on Burnaby Mountain, the spacing will be so tight that fire could easily jump from one tank to another, creating a "boilover" event that would be unstoppable.
"A boilover is a little like a chain reaction. Once [the burning tanks] have started in motion it's very difficult to stop them," said Deputy Chief Bowcock, who is trained in fighting tank fires. "It's almost like at some point it's a runaway train and you just have to get out of the way of it. The trouble is, in the middle of the prairies with no one around it might be achievable with a lower impact, but in the City of Burnaby … we'd have to do a mass evacuation."
He said millions of barrels of crude oil could erupt in flames, and winds would carry burning oil beyond the boundaries of the tank farm.
"All that molten hydrocarbon is going to land in a forested area and you are going to have a pretty significant forest fire on the top of Burnaby Mountain, which by all accounts would be almost impossible to extinguish," he said. "These are high consequences."
Deputy Chief Bowcock said such a fire would race up Burnaby Mountain toward Simon Fraser University, which has 30,000 students, potentially isolating the campus by burning across access roads.
"It would be very difficult," he said. "A wildfire in the treetops is a lot different than a ground fire. There'd be no way to get in front of that and stop that from progressing over the mountain and consuming the forested area completely."
The report estimates that by doubling the number of tanks at the terminal, significantly reducing the spacing between them, the risk of a fire spreading outside the facility is increased by 70 per cent.
"I'm surprised it's as devastating a report as it is," Burnaby Mayor Derek Corrigan said. "It really makes you stand back and think about what is going to occur if that pipeline goes through."
Mr. Corrigan, an outspoken critic of the Trans Mountain proposal, said for safety reasons alone the NEB should reject the project. "If they are people who have any kind of conscience, they have to say, 'We can't impose this on a community,'" he said.
But Michael Davies, senior director for Kinder Morgan Canada, defended the project in an e-mail.
"There's nothing more important than the safety of our neighbours and the communities where our pipeline and terminals operate," he said. "The terminal in Burnaby has been operating safely for 60 years and through our maintenance, prevention and emergency preparedness programs, we are confident in our ability to prevent and respond to all kinds of incidents."
Mr. Davies said Trans Mountain has filed a preliminary risk assessment with the NEB, which concludes "that through design and good management practices the risk of a fire at the terminal is low." He said the company will review the Burnaby Fire Department report and "would welcome a discussion with them to better understand and address their concerns and questions."