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Pipeline safety incident rate doubles1:41

Trouble doubles on petroleum pipelines regulated by the federal government over the past decade

Pipeline safety incident rate doubles 1:41

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Opposing Line 92:25

A hearing into a controversial oil pipeline between Montreal and southwest Ontario was shut down because of security concerns

Opposing Line 9 2:25

Hamilton experienced nine safety incidents on its major oil and gas pipelines in just over a decade, second in Ontario only to the 10 recorded in Sarnia.

The Hamilton cases are part of a nationwide swell in the number of safety-related incidents on pipelines regulated by the federal government, a CBC News investigation shows.

National Energy Board documents obtained by CBC News under access to information laws reveal that across Canada, the rate of safety incidents on pipelines has doubled since 2000.

Interactive pipeline map: Have there been incidents near you?

By 2011, safety-related incidents — covering everything from unintentional fires to spills into creeks — rose from one to two for every 1,000 kilometres of federally regulated pipeline. That reflects an increase from 45 total incidents in 2000 to 142 in 2011.

The information is contained in an NEB database with detailed information about 1,047 pipeline safety incidents from Jan. 1, 2000 until late 2012.

In recent months, a spate of oil and gas spills both from train derailments and pipelines have raised questions about which mode of transport is the safest.

'You’re going to get corrosion. You’re going to get incidents. You’re going to get failures. Thank God they’re small, but it only takes one catastrophic one to change the environment completely.'- Guy Paparella, director of growth planning for the city of Hamilton

The pipeline industry has touted its safety record as it seeks support for numerous controversial projects across the continent, including TransCanada’s Keystone XL to the U.S. Gulf Coast and Enbridge’s Northern Gateway to the B.C. coast, and closer to home, the Line 9 flow reversal.

In internal documents, the NEB has expressed concerns about the rising rate of incidents.

Hamilton incidents 

 Safety-related incidents on Hamilton oil and gas pipelines (see bottom of page for a more detailed summary):

  • September-October 2001 — 95,000 litres of crude oil from Enbridge pipeline leaks in Binbrook
  • October 2001 — Small fire during cleanup of Binbrook spill
  • December 2005 — Gas leak at Ancaster TransCanada station lasts for 45 minutes
  • May 2007 — Machinery explosion at Ancaster TransCanada station
  • November 2007 — Tractor fire on Enbridge pipeline right-of-way
  • April 2009 — Broken pipe discovered on filter at TransCanada station
  • April 2010 — 100,000 litres of natural gas leaks from TransCanada station in Ancaster
  • May 2011 — Small fire at TransCanada’s Hamilton Gate Sales Meter Station
  • February 2012 — Backhoe strikes, dents TransCanada pipeline

(Source: National Energy Board)

Most of the Hamilton cases were minor, but two resulted in significant discharges of oil or gas.

In 2001, Enbridge’s Line 10 pipeline leaked 95,000 litres of crude oil onto a farmer’s field in Binbrook. And in 2010, a faulty valve on a TransCanada pipeline in Ancaster caused 100 cubic metres (or 100,000 litres) of natural gas to escape into the atmosphere.

Lynda Lukasik, executive director of Environment Hamilton, a non-profit advocacy group, said she’s alarmed that Hamilton nearly topped the list of safety incidents on pipelines in Ontario.

“We don’t have refineries, we don’t have that concentrated a level of [oil industry] activities,” she told CBC Hamilton. “So the fact that we have that many incidents here makes me feel a bit concerned.”

However, Guy Paparella, the city’s director of growth planning, who also oversees a newly minted city hall task force that examines pipeline proposals, said the figures don’t come as a shock given the number of pipelines that run through the area.  

“Based on where Hamilton is located, we have quite a number of pipelines,” he said. “We’re at the confluence of Lake Ontario and Lake Erie. And if you want to go east, west, north and south from this area with a pipeline, you have to go through Hamilton.”

He said the age of Hamilton’s large oil and gas pipelines may also explain the number of incidents the city has experienced.

“You’re looking that stuff that’s decades old — 37, 38 years old, in some cases. You’re going to get corrosion. You’re going to get incidents. You’re going to get failures. Thank God they’re small, but it only takes one catastrophic one to change the environment completely.”

The Line 9 Enbridge pipeline is 38 years old.

'Industry-wide commitment'

Pipeline watchers like Pembina Institute associate Nathan Lemphers suggest the rise may be a worrisome sign of aging infrastructure.

“The pipelines that are in the ground are getting older and in some cases there's more products flowing through them so you're going to see increasing incidents and increasing defects in those pipelines unless they're properly maintained,” Lemphers said.

'The Canadian pipeline industry is one of the very safest in the world, second to none in terms of actual results.'- Brenda Kenny, president of the Canadian Energy Pipelines Association

Industry officials defend their safety records, and say they have sophisticated safeguards in place to prevent catastrophic spills and explosions, and to minimize the impact of accidents when they do occur.

Brenda Kenny, president of the Canadian Energy Pipelines Association, which represents major oil and gas companies, says there’s an industry-wide commitment to “get to zero incidents.”

“We're driving that out very hard through our risk-based management approach at the industry level that involves a lot of best practices, integrity, management, technology and these indicators,” she told CBC News.

“The Canadian pipeline industry is one of the very safest in the world, second to none in terms of actual results.”

Line 9 controversy

The documents come to light amid contentious public debate over a new proposal put forward by energy giant Enbridge Inc. to make changes to its Line 9 pipeline, which runs through the Hamilton area.

Enbridge Pipeline Hearings 20131019

Protesters demonstrating against Enbridge's application to reverse it's Line 9 pipeline demonstrate outside Toronto's Metro Convention Centre on Saturday, October 19, 2013. (Chris Young/Canadian Press)

The Edmonton-based energy giant has applied to the NEB to reverse the flow on a segment of the pipeline that runs between North Westover, a village near Hamilton’s northwestern fringe, to Montreal, and also increase the amount of oil running through the pipeline to 300,000 barrels per day, up from 240,000.

The larger volume, Lukasik said, as well as the increasing number of pipeline incidents across Canada, bodes badly for the safety of the local environment.

“I don’t like the sounds of it,” she said of the number of incidents Hamilton has seen since 2000, “even if they aren’t major.”

“Add to that this desire for companies like Enbridge to run [diluted oil sands bitumen] through the lines, that just increases the level of concern even more of what we might be dealing with.”

Leaks, spills triple

The NEB oversees any pipeline that crosses provincial or international borders, which includes nearly 90 companies that own about 71,000 kilometres of pipelines. The data does not include smaller pipelines monitored by provinces.

The federal regulator attributes the rise in incidents to a heightened awareness among companies about what they need to report.

“We’ve been out there talking with industry associations and the companies themselves to ensure that they are fully aware of what the reporting requirements are and I think that’s why we’re seeing an increase right now,” said NEB’s business leader for operations, Patrick Smythe.

Each company overseen by the NEB must report safety issues including the death or serious injury of a worker, fires, explosions, liquid product spills over 1,500 litres and every gas leak.

Among the other findings based on NEB’s pipeline database is that there’s been a three-fold increase in the rate of spills and leaks — ranging from small amounts to large — in the past decade.

More than four reportable releases happened for every 10,000 kilometres in 2000, or 18 incidents in total, according to NEB data. By 2011, that rate had risen to 13 per 10,000 kilometres, or 94 incidents.

Those numbers include any oil or natural gas releases companies are required to report due to laws.

NEB’s Smythe says that the regulator has not seen an alarming increase in the “significant, serious or major incidents over the last little while.”

NEB Concerns

Recent documents published by the NEB shows the board has expressed some concern over rising numbers.

“Notwithstanding the safety record of NEB-regulated pipelines, the board has noticed an increased trend in the number and severity of incidents being reported by NEB-regulated companies in recent years,” one 2012 report states.

A 2011 document citing the same concern also notes the need for NEB to “enhance data collection” in order to tackle that problem and other troubling trends in the industry.

It goes on to say that a reduction in the numbers ultimately “depends on actions taken by the industry.”

Carl Weimer, executive director of U.S. advocacy group Pipeline Safety Trust, says small leaks may not individually be significant on their own, but taken together they provide a better picture when looking at safety trends.

“It shows how really carefully they are taking care of the pipelines,” said Weimer.

Safety-related pipeline incidents in Hamilton from 2000-2012 

  • September-October 2001 — 95,000 litres of crude oil spills into a farmer’s field after a leak on Enbridge’s Line 10 pipeline.
  • October 2001 — During the cleanup from the Binbrook leak, the blade of a bulldozer strikes a rock, creating a spark that goes onto ignite some of the spilled oil. The flames were put out with a fire extinguisher.
  • December 2005 — A faulty valve at an Ancaster station on a TransCanada pipeline causes natural gas to leak into the air for 45 minutes.
  • May 2007 — While crews were doing repairs on TransCanada’s Ancaster Compressor Station, a pressure regulator blew up. The shrapnel damaged other equipment, but no one was injured and no gas was released.
  • November 2007 — A small tractor, operated by a driver contracted by Enbridge, catches fire while working on a tract of land that three of the company’s pipeline’s cross. The flames scorch 300 square feet of land. No one is injured and no oil is released.
  • April 2009 — Workers discover a broken steel pipe on a filter on a TransCanada natural gas pipeline.
  • April 2010 — A faulty valve on a TransCanada’s Ancaster Compressor Station causes 100,000 litres of natural gas to escape into the atmosphere.
  • May 2011 —A small fire emanates from a pipe at TransCanada’s Hamilton Gate Sales Meter Station. It was quickly extinguished, and no one was injured.
  • February 2012 — A backhoe accidentally strikes a TransCanada pipeline running through Hamilton, causing a dent about 15 cm long, 14 cm wide and 6 cm deep. No gas escaped, and the pipe was reinforced. 

(Source: National Energy Board)