Skip to main content

The Kinder Morgan tank farm on Burnaby Mountain in Burnaby, B.C., Wednesday May 13, 2015.DARRYL DYCK/The Globe and Mail

Kinder Morgan greatly underestimated the risk of a worst-case-scenario fire at its Burnaby tank farm in its application to expand the facility as part of its Trans Mountain pipeline proposal, according to a new report from a leading expert.

In a study paid for by the City of Burnaby and obtained by The Globe and Mail, Ivan Vince, a U.K.-based expert on tank-farm accidents, said the company barely assessed the "show-stopping" risk of such a fire. He said a fire could create a chain of events that would lead to flames engulfing Burnaby Mountain and massive evacuations of the surrounding neighbourhoods. Burnaby will file the report on Wednesday to the National Energy Board as part of its submissions opposing Trans Mountain's expansion. The report echoes the concerns raised this month by the city's fire department that more tanks would mean a greater chance of a "boil-over" fire, in which a layer of water inside a tank gets superheated during a fire and causes an explosion that would send burning oil hundreds of metres into the air. "The only way they could possibly excuse not including this in their analysis and conclusions is if they show that it was so unlikely as to be incredible," Dr. Vince said.

That would mean that the chance of such a fire happening was about one in one million each year, he said. However, Dr. Vince's analysis showed that if the tank farm was expanded to include 13 more storage tanks (for a total of 26), the annual risk of such a fire would be one in 2,000.

"One in 2,000 sounds like a small chance, but it is much too high under the circumstances," said Dr. Vince, who added that British authorities would not approve a proposal like Kinder Morgan's that lies so close to a residential neighbourhood.

Dr. Vince said a scathing report by Burnaby Deputy Fire Chief Chris Bowcock released two weeks ago was correct in describing what would happen if a boil-over fire occurred.

In that report, Deputy Chief Bowcock said millions of barrels of crude oil could erupt in flames and be carried beyond the barriers of the tank farm, starting a forest fire on Burnaby Mountain and potentially isolating 30,000 students at Simon Fraser University by burning across roads to the mountaintop campus.

Dr. Vince said, "Once you get more than one tank [on fire], you might as well give up, because they won't have the resources to even try and fight that."

Under the current proposal, Kinder Morgan would replace one tank and add 13, increasing the maximum amount of oil that could be stored at the facility from almost 1.7 million barrels to about 5.6 million, according to a risk assessment funded by the company. Deputy Chief Bowcock said the spacing of tanks at the expanded facility would be so tight that fire could easily jump from one tank to another.

A representative of the company said on Monday that Kinder Morgan has operated safely in the area for 60 years and is confident in its "ability to prevent and respond to all kinds of incidents," noting that a risk assessment it submitted to the NEB stated that its tanks are unlikely to boil over in a fire.

"This scenario is considered to not be a factor in this analysis," engineer Doug McCutcheon concluded in his final report. "The tank design follows recommended practices with respect to preventing boil-over scenarios."

Mr. McCutcheon's report stated that a boil can be stopped by having an external floating roof on the tank and routinely removing the water that develops in the tanks.

Dr. Vince said "there's been an awful lot of research done on how we can mitigate that risk" by removing water and creating diagnostic warning tools, but it cannot yet be fully controlled.

His report is the latest in a string of negative assessments of the expansion proposal funded by local governments that will be submitted to the NEB. The Tsleil-Waututh First Nation is expected to release a final report on Tuesday morning outlining why it opposes Kinder Morgan's proposal.

Editor's note: A previous version of this story incorrectly said the Burnaby tank farm's capacity is 1,700 barrels and would increase to 5,600 barrels under the proposed expansion. In fact, the facility currently holds 1.7 million barrels and that would increase to 5.6 million.