Officials with TransCanada Pipelines say they still don't know what caused a huge pipeline explosion and fire at one of the company's gas lines in southeast Manitoba over the weekend.

About 4,000 natural gas customers have been without heat since the explosion at about 1 a.m. CT Saturday near Otterburne, 50 kilometres south of Winnipeg. 

TransCanada has begun work on a bypass around the damaged section, and the company has told Manitoba Hydro that gas supply would start flowing again as early as Monday night.

Karl Johannson, TransCanada's executive vice-president and president of natural gas pipelines, said officials currently do not know what caused the fire and explosion.

"It's going to take time before we can figure out the cause of this fire, and it's going to take some evaluation and analysis before we can give you an answer on what exactly has occurred," he told reporters Monday afternoon.

The pipeline that exploded was one of two supplying the Manitoba Hydro natural gas distribution system in the area. Although only one was damaged, TransCanada had to shut off the gas supply to the second pipeline as a safety precaution in order to effect repairs to the damaged pipeline.

TransCanada is planning to resume gas to the distribution system in two stages:

  • The first stage would provide gas to rural municipalities north of the damaged section, including Ste. Agathe, Niverville, New Bothwell, Kleefeld, Otterburne and Marchand, by Monday evening.
  • The second stage, which would begin four hours after the first stage, is expected to provide gas to the Rural Municipality of De Salaberry south of the damaged section including St. Malo, St. Pierre-Jolys, Grunthal and Dufrost.

​ Most of the affected customers should have gas restored by noon Tuesday.

"We're doing everything we can to restore natural gas service into your communities as quickly and safely as possible," Johannson said.

"We're so heartened to hear how people that have been impacted by this are taking one another into their homes to help them out."

Southern Manitoba has been in the grips of bitter cold since the explosion, leaving many who rely on natural gas furnaces to find other sources of heat, such as portable electric heaters.

On Monday, cold Arctic air was making temperatures to –32 C in the communities affected by the explosion. But the extreme wind chill made it feel more like –45 C.

'A perfect storm'

Dave Carr, who lives in Niverville, said people are doing what they can to keep warm and prevent their pipes from freezing.

Pipeline repairs

At the end of this cold, snow-drifted road, TransCanada Pipeline workers are constructing a bypass to restore gas service to 4,000 customers. (Katie Nicholson/CBC)

He has strategically placed electric heaters to keep his pipes from freezing and to prevent his breaker from blowing, he has kept other things unplugged.

Carr said most people have been taking the outage in stride.

"It's been a perfect storm — weather, wind, cold, now this,” he said.

Crews were going to attempt repairs on the pipeline on the weekend but the extreme cold prevented them from doing so.

Past pipeline blasts in Manitoba

Place Date Company Report
St. Leon Oct. 3, 1994 Interprovincial Pipeline  http://tinyurl.com/knenkua
Rapid City July 29, 1995 TransCanada Pipelines http://tinyurl.com/k2hgdv9
St. Norbert  April 15, 1996 TransCanada Pipelines http://tinyurl.com/kwukyw5
Brookdale April 14, 2002 TransCanada Pipelines http://tinyurl.com/lmrc3da

“So until the conditions improve, we just have to live with the conditions that we're in," said Carr, who admits he contemplated sleeping in his truck with heated seats if his home got too cold.

Pipeline map

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Meanwhile, investigators with the federal Transportation Safety Board were at the scene of the explosion on Monday.

Senior investigator Jerry Berriault told CBC News he has seen "a crater about 30 feet in diameter, about 10 feet deep, and started inspecting fragments of pipe."

Berriault said it's too early to say what caused the blast, except to say it appears to have started on a 30-inch high-pressure gas line.

Johannson said 100 employees from across Canada are in Manitoba, working around the clock to repair the pipeline.

All the affected communities are expected to have gas service restored by Monday night or Tuesday, he said.

To ensure a safe and speedy restoration, Manitoba Hydro is asking all customers affected by the natural gas outage to take the following steps:

  • Turn down your thermostat.
  • Ensure natural gas appliances such as ovens and cooktops are turned off.

Temporary service

Some area residents like Lisa Bjerring of Ste. Agathe have had their gas service restored after portable units were brought in on Monday.

"I was really happy to see him," Bjerring laughed.

"It took him a while; my furnace didn't want to respond. But then it did and now we have heat, and the water is starting to heat up and we're going to have a shower."

Warming centres have been established in several communities and residents are asked to check on neighbours who may not have an alternate source of heat.

Inspectors from the Transportation Safety Board have been in Otterburne on Monday to try to determine the cause of the blast, which sent balls of flame 200 to 300 metres high, shooting out of the ground.

The fire lit up the dark sky and the explosion literally sounded like a jet plane, according to witnesses.

There were no injuries from the blast.

TransCanada will compensate anyone affected for their direct costs incurred because of the gas outage, said Johannson.

Despite the incident, TransCanada insists that people living near pipelines should not be worried for their safety.

"Even with this incident, when you look at our record, it is world class," Johannson said. "I don't think residents around the pipeline should be concerned."

"TransCanada takes this very, very seriously," he added. "That's what we do, we move natural gas in pipelines…. It deeply, deeply, concerns us."

United States impacted

The affected lines also provide the main supply of natural gas to more than 100,000 Xcel Energy customers in the U.S. as well.

Gas customers in eastern North Dakota, northwestern Minnesota and western Wisconsin have also been impacted by the explosion but are not without service.

Xcel Energy has asked residential and business customers in those areas to conserve natural gas by turning their thermostats down and avoiding using natural gas appliances.

Xcel Energy currently is receiving natural gas supply to serve customers in Fargo and Grand Forks in North Dakota; East Grand Forks, Moorhead and Brainerd in Minnesota; and communities in west-central Wisconsin, including the Eau Claire, Chippewa Falls and Menomonie areas, from alternate routes from Michigan and from the Twin Cities area.

Emergency operations centres

For the most up-to-date information on community conditions, residents are asked to contact Manitoba Hydro or their local municipality.

  • Rural Municipality of Hanover (Kleefeld, Grunthal, New Bothwell, Friedensfeld)

Location – Steinbach RM Office, 28 Westland Dr.

Public inquiry line: 204-326-4488, ext. 6120

Public information officer:  204-326-4488, ext. 6135

  • RM of De Salaberry (Dufrost, St. Malo, St-Pierre-Jolys, Otterburne)

Location – St-Pierre-Jolys Town Office, 555 Hebert Ave.

Public inquiry line:  204-433-7406

  • RM of Richot

Location – St. Adolphe Emergency Operations Centre, fire hall

Public inquiry line:  204-883-2918

  • Niverville

Location – Niverville Town Office, 86 Main St.

Public inquiry line:  204-388-4600

Warming shelters

  • RM of Hanover

     Grunthal – Abundant Life Church, PR 216 South

     New Bothwell – Christian Fellowship Church, 20 Sara Ave.

  • RM of De Salaberry

     The Manor Retirement Home, 449 Jolys Ave., St-Pierre-Jolys

     St. Malo Chalet Retirement Home

     Otterburne residents to use St-Pierre-Jolys, Dufrost to use St. Malo

  • Town of Niverville

     Niverville Heritage Centre – 2 Ave. S, Niverville.