Could a breach of the proposed Enbridge Northern Gateway pipeline force the evacuation of Burns Lake as bitumen and condensate spew from a ruptured 2500 psi pipe running through the hills surrounding Burns Lake and underneath the Endako River just west of town?
“Let me state emphatically that the chance of this scenario ever occurring is zero,” said Michelle Perret, senior manager of community and municipal relations for Enbridge Northern Gateway Pipelines.
Perret was in town at the request of Burns Lake village council. Mayor Strimbold’s office had received a letter from Doug Phair, a local resident, outlining his concerns for the outcome of a break in the proposed pipeline under review that would pass quite close to Burns Lake. Phair highlighted a potential evacuation zone around the run of the proposed pipeline which he considers to represent an unacceptable risk.
“Council received the letter from Mr. Phair and… we sent a letter to Enbridge requesting more information about emergency response programs,” said Strimbold.
Perret, along with Owen McHugh, Stantec Associate Project Manager of Environmental Management for Enbridge, made a presentation to village council on Sept. 9, 2012 prior to the regularly scheduled village council meeting. Several members of the public were also in attendance, despite the relatively short notice given that Enbridge would be making a presentation to village council.
McHugh quickly acknowledged that the specifics Enbridge’s emergency response to a pipeline breach in Burns Lake are not ready at hand. “There haven’t been any field studies in Burns Lake,” said McHugh. “But they will be done.”
According to McHugh, the pipeline project is at too preliminary a stage to expect a specific response plan to be in place for every section of the pipeline. He presented his analysis of what a Burns Lake emergency plan would look like based upon the existing detailed plans for a pipe failure in Kitimat.
McHugh described a system where ground elevation and drainage topography allow for a model of projected spill pathways and containment points. The idea is that a rupture of the pipeline at a specific point along its length will naturally be directed to choke points. These choke points might be ecologically sensitive stream heads or lakes, but they do represent containable constriction points rather than a wide indiscriminate swathe of flooding that would overwhelm Burns Lake.
As for the specifics of how these points would be identified and how cleanups would proceed, McHugh offered that the details would need to be worked out once pipeline construction moved from proposal to approval. He described a situation where emergency response plans grow dynamically with input from, and in response to, the local community. McHugh emphasized that Enbridge’s generic response plans would need to be tailored to individual ecological and social situations along the entirety of the pipeline and that it wasn’t a question of having a one answer solution to all possible situations.
Councillor Quinten Beach opened questioning after the presentation. Beach asked how Enbridge proposed controlling a pipeline failure as it crossed the Endako River joining Burns Lake and Decker Lake. McHugh responded that a ‘thick-walled pipe’ would be laid underneath the river by directional drilling. There would also be valves on either side of the river to control flow.
Beach was concerned as to who would carry the liability for environmental clean up should there be a pipeline failure. McHugh said that “Northern Gateway accepts unlimited liability for pipeline spills.”
Phair’s concern is that the pipeline, if it is to go through at all, shouldn’t be located so close to Burns Lake. Although Perret did not specifically address Phair’s letter during her presentation to council, she did leave open the possibility that the pipeline route could change in response to environmental, community or First Nations concern. “Currently, this [Northern Gateway] is just an application, a proposal for a project,” she said. “As we get input, we constantly revise our route. We’re on route revision U, and we started on A.”
The Village of Burns Lake continues to officially take a neutral stance on the proposed Northern Gateway pipeline. Both councillor Susan Schienbein and councillor Beach have gone on the record stating their personal opposition to the Northern Gateway proposal, while Mayor Strimbold has recently reiterated his wait and see position.