MERRITT, B.C. – A crew was cleaning up a small oil spill Thursday from Kinder Morgan’s Trans Mountain pipeline in British Columbia, where the company plans a controversial expansion through a province where the debate over oil pipelines and the tankers that go with them have played out in the headlines.
Initial estimates from the Calgary-based company said 12 barrels, or about 2,000 litres, of light crude leaked before an employee discovered the breach Wednesday about 40 kilometres south of Merritt, B.C., where the line follows the Coquihalla Highway through the Cascade Mountains.
“We had crews in the area that were doing routine maintenance work and one of our crew members… noticed a small pooling of what appeared to be oil,” company spokesman Andy Galarnyk said.
The pipeline was shut down about 10 a.m. and a crew dispatched, he said. All regulatory agencies were notified, and by late Wednesday, the National Energy Board had observers on site and the repair was underway.
The energy board said the public and the environment were not at risk.
A Kinder Morgan oil spill response team of up to 24 people was at the scene within a couple of hours, but Galarnyk said it is unclear how long oil had been leaking.
“My understanding was that the control centre did not receive an alarm, so in terms of whether it was a very slow leak that just bubbled to the surface, that’s part of the investigation that’s underway at this point,” he said.
The federal energy board said the company is responsible for clean-up and site remediation.
“There is no immediate safety concern for local residents and precautions are being taken to ensure continued public safety,” the watchdog agency said in a statement.
B.C. Environment Minister Mary Polak did not respond to a request for comment.
The province recently announced its opposition to the Northern Gateway oil pipeline proposal, due in part to concerns about a spill. The province has not taken a position on Kinder Morgan’s proposed expansion.
The Trans Mountain line ships 300,000 barrels per day of various petroleum products from Alberta to the B.C. Lower Mainland and Washington State.
Last month, Kinder Morgan submitted its project description to the National Energy Board. The plan would almost triple the capacity, and include shipment of diluted bitumen, a heavier, molasses-like oil that critics claim is harder to clean up.
The proposal is controversial, and critics were quick to seize upon the spill.
Sarah Cox, the head of Sierra Club B.C., said the leak — however small — highlights the dangers of oil pipelines.
“We find it alarming that it took them a few days to detect the leak,” she said.
The expansion would mean more oil coursing through the pipelines on land, and an additional 400 oil tankers a year plying the B.C. coast.
“Where oil moves, it spills,” Cox said. “It’s only a matter of time before there is a bigger spill.”
Since 2005 there have been four ruptures on the Trans Mountain line, she said, including a 2007 construction accident that rained down 230,000 litres of oil on a Burnaby neighbourhood.
Ben West, of the group ForestEthics, said the incident serves as a reminder that “it’s not a matter of if spills will happen, but when they will happen.”
The spill occurred days before a federal panel begins hearing final arguments in its review of the Northern Gateway pipeline, another controversial proposal that would transport oil from Alberta to a tanker port in Kitimat, B.C.
Galarnyk said the spill is not a blow to efforts to win over a skittish B.C. public.
“The fact that we do ongoing integrity work and maintenance on the existing line, I think, just attests to the fact that we take the safe and efficient operation of the line seriously,” he said.
“Events like this do happen from time to time, but at the same time we are prepared for them.”
The company has said that in 51 years, there have been only eight spills on the Trans Mountain line that exceeded the reporting threshold of 1.5 cubic metres, and only two of those in the past 30 years.
– By Dene Moore in Vancouver