Burnaby oil refinery at earthquake risk

Buildings at the Chevron oil refinery in Burnaby, B.C., would not withstand an earthquake according to a recent seismic assessment conducted by the company, CBC News has learned.
The Chevron refinery in Burnaby, B.C., turns crude and synthetic oils, condensate and butanes into 50,000 to 55,000 barrels of gasoline, diesel and jet fuels, asphalts, heating fuels, heavy fuel oils, butanes and propane every day. (Andy Clark/Reuters)

Buildings at the Chevron oil refinery in Burnaby, B.C., would not withstand an earthquake according to a recent seismic assessment conducted by the company, CBC News has learned.

Internal documents obtained by the CBC show key facilities like the on-site firehouse, the main office, and the training centre where emergency response teams were expected to gather would collapse completely.

Other buildings, like maintenance and control houses would suffer major damage that would not be repairable.

The refineries processors, which are located on the south shore of Burrard Inlet, were not included in the assessment, which was conducted just over a year ago by Chevron's own engineers.

Chevron's Ray Lord says the machinery that operates the oil refinery will be assessed at some point.

"We're in the process of proceeding on a similar assessment of our processing equipment as well in the future to try to continually improve the safety of our structures here at the refinery," he said.

Lord says a $5-million plan to retrofit the plant by 2015 is now in place, and some changes have already been made, including moving staff and firefighting equipment out of dangerous buildings, and checking to ensure the machinery that operates the refinery is up to code.

"The Burnaby plant has a number of approaches to seismic preparedness, including the design of the refinery. We have a number of safety systems and shutdown systems that would be deployed during an event of significant magnitude" he said.


Representatives from both the Ministry of Environment and the Solicitor General — the ministry responsible for emergency preparedness — say neither are responsible for overseeing the siesmic safety of the facility, and it is not yet clear which ministry is responsible.

UBC civil engineering professor Carlos Ventura, who specialises in seismic safety of infrastructure, applauds Chevron's initiative, but draws attention to the risks in having critical parts of the facility vulnerable.

"When we deal with buildings that are part of a critical infrastructure.then the requirements for that building to perform should be raised," said Ventura.

Residents of north Burnaby are calling for an independent review of Chevron's safety standards.

Judi Marshall belongs to a coalition of community activists, who have long called for increased scrutiny and tighter safety regulations at the Chevron facility.

"My concern is that it's an internal document, it was never brought up at the Chevron Advisory Panel meeting...I know in 2002 the Ministry of the Environment at the time had them do a safety audit and I think it's time that happen again and that information be shared," said Marshall.

Last year residents and city officials raised concerns  about oil seeping from the plant into the inlet.

Marshall says the fact part of the facility is vulnerable in the event of a natural disaster is equally worrisome.

"It's pretty scary because this latest leak they claim it's because of the aging infrastructure of the refinery so when I hear that the buildings will collapse I think aren't those housing people running the equipment, aren't they the ones sounding the alarm if something happens?"