Pipeline flaws spiked number of leaks, says whistleblower

CBC News has learned the rate of spills and leaks involving federally regulated pipelines has doubled since 2000, and a whistleblower says construction flaws — not aging pipelines — are to blame.

Former TransCanada engineer says increase in incidents since 2000 can be traced to quality issues

Federally-regulated pipelines have seen a swell in safety-related incidents in the last decade. 2:56

CBC News has learned the rate of spills and leaks involving federally-regulated pipelines has doubled since 2000, and a whistleblower says construction flaws — not aging pipelines — are to blame.

The National Energy Board regulates about 71,000 kilometres of pipelines across the country, almost half of which sit in Alberta (30,628 kilometres).

Evan Vokes worked as an engineer at Calgary-based TransCanada until last year when he was fired after raising concerns about the company's practices.

He says construction quality issues are to blame for a rise in pipeline incidents from 2000 to 2012 — and that is something that needs to change.

The spike in incidents also doesn't count the more than 400,000 kilometres of pipelines in Alberta that are provincially regulated.   

"Generally, these are large pipes," Vokes said. "When they leak, they like to explode and they have a very large blast radius."

When they leak, they like to explode.- Evan Vokes, former TransCanada engineer

Just off Highway 22 at the Chain Lakes Recreation Area, 130 kilometres south of Calgary, there is a large orange pipe that has been completely exposed by floodwaters.

The pipe is owned by TransCanada and regulated by the National Energy Board because it crosses a border.

However, the NEB doesn't consider exposed pipelines to be "reportable incidents."

Vokes says floodwaters shouldn't have been able to expose the pipe and it wasn't buried deeply enough to begin with.

"This is the same problem I had at TransCanada with construction quality," Vokes said.

TransCanada says it is aware of the exposed pipeline and that it has been isolated, shut down and depressurized. 

The company says natural gas will not flow through it until the pipeline is fixed. The exposed pipeline has not leaked or spilled into the surrounding area.

1,000 safety-related incidents, shows database

But for industry watchers, every little problem counts — and there are more than 1,000 "safety-related incidents" involving federally-regulated pipelines detailed in the National Energy Board database from 2000 to late 2012.

Roughly 240 of those incidents were in Alberta.

An engineer who used to work for TransCanada says the doubling in the last decade of pipeline leaks is attributable to sub-par construction practices. (CBC)

"They're an indicator of potential greater concerns for the pipelines itself," said Nathan Lemphers, a Pembina Institute associate. 

He is one of many in the industry who blame aging pipelines for the increase in incidents.

But the organization that represents major pipeline companies says the numbers themselves are misleading. 

They say companies are simply more diligent about filing reports.

"When you look at the actual data and understand what's going on in terms of what the data means, we're not seeing an increase," said Brenda Kenny with the Canadian Energy Pipelines Association. "We're seeing an adjustment in how the reporting occurs."

The reported incidents include a variety of problems from spills to minor leaks and worker injuries. 

"The majority of incidents that come across our desk [that are] reported to us are minor in nature and they're all followed up," said Patrick Smyth, the National Energy Board's business leader of operations.


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