Alberta regulator slams Plains Midstream over massive 2011 oil pipeline spill

CALGARY – Alberta’s energy regulator is sharply critical of a company responsible for a massive 2011 oil pipeline spill that fouled land in the northwestern part of the province.

The Energy Resources Conservation Board issued four high-risk enforcement actions Tuesday against Plains Midstream Canada.

“A high-risk enforcement action is the most serious of offences that you can be found in non-compliance with,” board spokesman Darin Barter said Tuesday.

“There’s low-risk, which doesn’t have a public safety or environmental impact. High-risk does have a public safety and environmental impact. Four high-risk enforcement actions levelled against Plains is a pretty significant finding.”

The April 2011 breach, about 95 kilometres northeast of Peace River, caused 4.5 million litres of oil to spill onto the land, closed a school in the nearby community of Little Buffalo and created health problems for people in the area.

The board cited the company for not properly digging the pipeline, for inadequate operating and maintenance procedures, and for inadequate leak detection and response.

It also said Plains Midstream failed to test its emergency response plan.

To prevent future spills, the company has been ordered to assess all of its other pipelines of the same type.

“The way that I would characterize it — these are basic, fundamental, operational matters that pipeline companies should have in place. They failed to do that on four counts,” said Barter.

“They’re fundamental to pipeline operations and safety in Alberta.”

No one at Plains Midstream Canada was available to answer questions, but the company did issue a brief news release.

“Plains is carefully reviewing the ERCB’s investigation report 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.”

Barter said the pipeline was shut down for 122 days and the spill was thoroughly investigated. He said the company would also be subject to frequent audits and inspections.

“This spill was one of the largest we’ve seen in Alberta. We talked to the company, we talked to third-party investigators, engineering companies — there’s been volumes of information we required,’ he said.

“We wanted to make sure the message was sent to Plains and we’re hoping beyond Plains all of the pipeline industry sees how seriously we’re taking this and how seriously we will be taking this going forward.”

Greenpeace Canada was critical of the ERCB response and said its treatment of Plains Midstream should have been much harsher.

“The Energy Resources Conservation Board’s report is a damning indictment of pipeline safety in Alberta as yet another pipeline company has failed to protect Alberta’s environment and people and only received the lightest slap on the wrist,” said Greenpeace Climate and Energy Campaigner Melina Laboucan-Massimo.

“This sends a message that pipeline companies can cut corners on safety, leaving our communities and our environment to pay the price,” she said.

Greenpeace has repeatedly called for public hearings on pipeline safety in the province.

The energy board is investigating a second pipeline spill involving Plains Midstream. The June 2012 breach leaked up to 475,000 litres of oil into the Red Deer River near Sundre in central Alberta.

The leak fouled shorelines and closed a popular downstream recreational lake to fishing and swimming for weeks. It also threatened Red Deer’s water supply.

The regulator also handed out citations to two other firms related to three other separate spills near Swan Hills, northwest of Edmonton in 2011.

A high-risk enforcement action was issued against Pembina Pipeline Corporation for a leak of 1,300 barrels of oil into an area of muskeg and a creek five kilometres north of the town of Swan Hills in July 2011. Pembina Pipeline neglected to inform the ERCB immediately about that spill and a second leak nearby three weeks later.

A low-risk action was issued against Pengrowth Energy for operating the pipeline for more than a year under faulty construction practices before another pipeline failure on June 26, 2011, also near Swan Hills.