Pipelines poorly monitored

On June 7th the word gushed forth that a 46 year-old Plains Midstream Canada pipeline had ruptured, spewing an estimated 3,000 barrels of light sour crude oil into the Red Deer River near Sundre.

On June 7th the word gushed forth that a 46 year-old Plains Midstream Canada pipeline had ruptured, spewing an estimated 3,000 barrels of light sour crude oil into the Red Deer River near Sundre.

The cause of the leak has not yet been determined, but the crude has been contained by floating booms in Gleniffer Lake, the impoundment behind Dickson Dam on the Red Deer. Gleniffer’s popular summer resorts have been fundamentally shut down indefinitely while cleanup efforts go on and on.

The Red Deer River is the water source for thousands of Albertans, including 92,000 in Alberta’s third largest city, Red Deer itself. It is also a popular recreational river, with a rich, varied, and unusual cold and warm water fishery, including native bull trout, pike, walleye, goldeye, rocky mountain whitefish and sturgeon, and also non-native rainbow and brown trout and lake whitefish.

Aside from all that, a personal disclosure: the Red Deer is “my” river; I wear it on my sleeve. From the age of four when I first gazed upon the Red Deer, I hiked along it, fished it and hunted its breaks and bottoms, and drifted long sections of it from the headwaters down to where it joins the South Saskatchewan.

Albertans were startled by the unprecedented hustling of their bustles to Gleniffer on June 8th of not just the incumbent of two cabinet ministries, environment and sustainable resource development, Hon. Diana McQueen, but also the premier, Hon. Alison Redford. They were there to console the afflicted, yes, but mainly to hype the safety of Alberta pipelines to other Canadian and U.S. jurisdictions that remain unconvinced they want pipelines carrying “dirty oil” from Alberta into and through their environments.

Long-time observers of Alberta pipeline spills were flabbergasted by this hype-byte of the premier: “We are fortunate in this province that they (pipeline spills) don’t happen very often, and we can have some confidence that when they do happen, we have plans in place to deal with them.” Well, forget half a dozen very recent spills; if we accept figures from the field service report of Alberta’s and the industry’s own Energy Resources Conservation Board, there were 531 pipeline leaks of oil, natural gas and sour gas in 2010, slightly more than 10 per week. This is “fortunate?” This is “not very often?”

Then there was that immediate, massive, and expensive response of manpower and machinery, the premier praises. The word circulating at Gleniffer was that the pipeline industry regards it as more economical to pay for cleanups than to practice due diligence: monitoring, inspection and maintenance programs that would greatly reduce the number and severity of the leaks.

Q: Ever notice who is the last to know about these pipeline leaks?

A: Generally the owner and/or operator of the pipeline. In this case, once again, residents and other workers in the area noticed the gagging, eye-watering sulfur, rotten egg, smell. Plains first guessed the crude came into the river down a tributary, but now the suspicion is the pipeline failed for some reason at the crossing where it is buried under the river bed.

Today’s lack of government oversight of pipelines and the absence of corporate due diligence toward pipeline safety by the companies themselves is startling. Ten years or so after Alberta’s big 1947 oil and gas strikes, I was working summers in Alberta’s fledgling pipeline industry for sufficient big money to pay my way through an Honours BA at U of A, then Dalhousie Law School. The brass were all Texans (Plains Midstream is Texan), and I was and remain impressed to this day with the due diligence of the company toward pipeline safety. At least I think it was the company’s own due diligence, because, in those days, I believe there was even less government regulation than there is today.

Our large crew was primarily engaged in maintenance, monitoring and inspection of our hundreds of miles of line. We walked the lines monthly and flew them frequently by helicopter, looking for leaks and other problems that needed fixing.

Over four summers I walked the line through sweltering bad lands and bald-headed prairie, and too frequently just beat rodeo Brahma bulls to far off fences. Any needed fixing we found was done by our own crews, at which times I became a welder’s helper.

Regular corrosion tests were conducted. Volume and pressure monitoring was constant, 24/7. The whole company would have felt disgraced and ashamed if any leak had ever been detected by anyone before the company knew about it.

But that was then and this is now. Over the years I have also had the mixed blessing of pipelines crossing family land.

That, too, has changed for the worse. Recently I fished near a pipeline crossing at the top of the legendary “miracle mile” on Prairie Creek. Directly across from me was the log berm built by the pipe liners to protect the bank from erosion and the pipe from damage and probably not inspected since; at least it was still showing the damage caused by the “200-year flood” of 2005.

(Concluded next week)

Bob Scammell is an award-winning outdoors writer living in Red Deer. Contact Scammell at bscam@telusplanet.net

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