Alberta's energy regulator has highlighted a series of major failings in Plains Midstream Canada's handling of an April, 2011, pipeline rupture that spilled 28,000 barrels of oil into a northern Alberta muskeg, saying the company appeared to place a higher priority on keeping the pipeline running than on any concerns about a leak.
Almost two years after the Rainbow pipeline fractured near the Woodland Cree reserve northeast of Peace River – thrusting Alberta pipeline-safety issues into an international spotlight – the province's Energy Resources Conservation Board (ERCB) has released the findings of its investigation. The board found major flaws in the company's operations and maintenance procedures, as well as its leak-detection alarms and response.
The Rainbow sweet-crude spill spewed a strong hydrocarbon odour into the local area, and contaminated a forested area and wetlands. The ERCB report said the company's cleanup found that 79 birds, 11 beavers and other small animals died as a result of the spill.
"The actions of Plains appeared to demonstrate a practice of placing higher priority on continued operation of the pipeline over any potential impacts related to a pipeline leak," said Tuesday's ERCB report on Alberta's largest crude spill in 36 years.
"The volume of the release was much greater than it should have been under the circumstances."
However, the energy regulator stopped short of issuing any new penalties. ERCB spokesman Darin Barter said normally when the board lists a number of "high-risk enforcement actions" (essentially charges from the ERCB), the regulator would shut down a company's pipeline. However, he said Plains Midstream's pipeline was already shut down for the 122 days following the spill, at a cost of what the ERCB argues was $850-million to the Alberta economy.
"We didn't feel the need to go forward and shut them in again. We thought it was more important to ensure that prior to re-opening that pipeline that it was safe," Mr. Barter said. "They've essentially completed the requirements to fulfill those high-risk enforcement actions. So it's retroactive."
The report released on Tuesday had a long litany of censures for the company, including a "lack of operator training." In fact, the pipeline was restarted manually by an operator three times, even after an electronic monitoring system detected a rupture and initiated automatic shutdowns.
Mr. Barter said the investigation found "the operator kept turning off the alarm." He said the staff member at the time no longer works for Plains Midstream and the board couldn't get in touch with him for an interview to find out why.
Company officials weren't available for comment but issued a statement Tuesday afternoon saying it is carefully reviewing the ERCB's investigation "to determine whether any further findings and improvements can be applied to our operations. We have finalized the results of our own detailed investigation and have applied those lessons learned to improve our overall operations."
Mr. Barter said the regulator has also asked Plains Midstream to conduct an emergency-response exercise by the end of next month, as well as a crisis-communications audit – since its communication with the media and local residents in 2011was "substandard."
He added that Alberta's Environment department, which has the power to issue environmental fines, is still looking into the spill.
Mr. Barter said the investigation into the pipeline rupture was "exhaustive" and that's why the report is only being issued now. The ERCB also continues its investigation into Plains Midstream's June, 2012, pipeline spill beneath the Red Deer River near Sundre, Alta. Mr. Barter said the ERCB has stepped up its scrutiny of Plains operations due to the two incidents.