The Otterburne fireball ignited on January 25, It wasn't until July of that year that the Transportation Safety Board determined the cause of the fire was a pre-existing crack that went unnoticed due to lack of welding regulations when the pipe was welded, 50 years earlier. It's likely that the freezing temperatures in the coldest winter since contracted the pipe, the TSB said, and when combined with weakened soil support and pipeline inactivity, the crack ruptured and the gas ignited.
Officially the NEB classified the Otterburne incident as a "fire" and not an explosion, though the ignition of gas ejected debris and left a gash in the earth. While regulations governing welding inspections exist now, one of the whistleblowers, who worked as a TransCanada engineer, told VICE News the company was not following those regulations when he worked there. Evan Vokes blew the whistle on the company on May 1, , and was fired on May 8.
CBC reported his allegations in October Vokes alleged pipeline companies including TransCanada have poor welding practices and shoddy inspection, resulting in thousands of cracks in pipelines and "time bombs all over the place. We're doing it right now. That's my whole point.
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It's pretty scary. The only inspection is, 'Get that bitch in the ditch,'" Vokes said, quoting a pipeline worker expression. TransCanada says its current welding and testing processes are designed to locate small cracks like the one that led to the Otterburne incident, and it says it is continually testing new pipeline-inspection technologies.
However, as VICE's Motherboard reported in July, 70 percent of TransCanada's rural pipelines are small-diameter pipes, which are too small to be inspected by defect-inspecting robots called "smart pigs. How do you rationalize these two very diverse points of view?
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I have been on several projects that were very nearly disastrous. Under the category of things that are very nearly disasters, I am surprised that there actually are not more accidents. The problem is that, with pipelines, it waits a long time. Many times with the pipelines, it has to be disturbed before anything will happen. There has to be a ground movement or something like that. There are thousands of cracks in the system; it is just which ones will become the problem. It is low probability and high consequence. Asked how he would know whether a situation was "very nearly disastrous," Vokes said, "If you had an 80 percent through-wall crack in a very large pressure vessel and you only found it because the inspector went out and had a look, that is very nearly disastrous for a plant that does not have a fire suppression system.
The NEB's investigation and an uptick in whistleblower reports to the regulator come at a time in which Canada, like the rest of the world, is at a major crossroads on energy. The Canadian petroleum industry expects fossil fuel extraction to increase, but it says there isn't enough pipeline construction underway to get the country's oil to tankers. Oil and gas companies may have legal challenges and environmental opposition in their path, but they're hopeful. Throughout the Canadian election, Trudeau has said he would reform the NEB and properly consult with indigenous leaders on pipeline proposals, which could mean more pipeline construction under the Liberals.
But another former TransCanada employee echoes Vokes' worries about the company that could build Canada's next pipeline project.
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Chris, whose name has been changed to protect his identity, worked for TransCanada on and off for more than 20 years, fixing pipeline ruptures and cracks like those that caused the Otterburne explosion. Unlike Vokes, he is not an engineer. He alleges he saw a culture of worker inexperience and poor supervision that led to accidents, near misses, and unreported incidents. It's disheartening to see a brand new pipeline damaged before they even backfill it. Based on his allegations, the NEB found coating damage to a pipeline that appeared to go unreported for a year; an exposed, buckled section of pipe that was unnoticed for a year; an isolated mistake in welding procedures; a worker on site without protective equipment; an isolated incident of improper installation of ladders; and the over-torquing of a bolt that resulted in injury.
He was working on a four-month long project on the James River line, near Sundre, Alberta, a traditional oil and gas field about an hour's drive northwest of Calgary. On June 27, , Chris was on site with workers from a third-party contractor. They were young and inexperienced, he said.
He noticed they were using the tools incorrectly, so he told the foreman. According to his allegations to the NEB, they used a hydraulic wrench to tighten flange bolts, but they tightened them over specifications. At one point he said they put a piece of the pipeline in backward, which angered the foreman. They started taking it apart to fix it, he recalls.
Chris left for another site. Less than 10 minutes later, he received a frantic call — one of the workers had cut his finger off, Chris said. Chris believes the accident could have been much worse. Pipeline companies must report all serious injuries to the NEB. According to the NEB investigation released Friday, TransCanada immediately shut down the site, started a safety investigation and entered the incident into its internal system. However, the NEB concluded, the worker's injury was "a pinched finger," a minor injury, and therefore TransCanada did not need to report it to the regulator.
The contractor told the NEB the workers had over-tightened a bolt 1.
Earlier on the same site, on May 18, , Chris went to dig out a mainline for hydrotesting. He said he sat behind the controls of a excavator and started to dig when suddenly he hit a pipeline that, according to the drawings of the site, shouldn't have been there. The excavator left a chip in the pipeline coating, but did not pierce the pipe.
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He said he later saw more damage to the same pipe. The foreman reported the incident to a TransCanada manager, Chris said. The site was then frozen for a few days to do an investigation, as is normal protocol. According to the NEB investigation, the pipe was inspected on June 6 and no mechanical damage was found.
Chris went on vacationfor about two weeks. United States Census Bureau. Grossman, eds. Encyclopedia of Chicago. Chicago Historical Society. Retrieved May 3, Chicago Tribune.
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