CBC’s iTeam has learned that the number of reported leaks and spills at Regina's Co-op Refinery has tripled in the past year.
According to the Ministry of Environment’s Sask Spills website, there were eight spills and leaks in 2013. That number jumped to 24 in 2014.
Three of those incidents happened within the last month, and at least one of them involved a fire.
Ash Olesen, a manager with the Ministry of Environment, explained what went wrong:
- On November 18, a pipe fitting broke spilling 580 litres of a corrosive chemical: an Amine-based corrosion inhibitor.
- On November 19, an equipment failure in the coker unit caused 20 litres of asphalt to leak onto a heater drum. That caused the asphalt to turn into hydrocarbon vapours which were emitted into the atmosphere. In that case the facility was evacuated.
- And then on November 27, a tube leaked and released 1,600 litres of reduced crude. It caught on fire and burned for about 40 minutes.That caused the release of about 0.12 tonnes of sulphur dioxide into the atmosphere.
Olesen explained to CBC’s iTeam that sulphur dioxide is “potentially harmful to the environment and human health.”
Olesen said the ministry will be following up on these incidents. He said investigators will want to answer the questions, “do we have systemic issues here? Is this a one-off?’”
Over the past year, the refinery has reported accidentally emitting a range of substances including hydrogen gas, hydrogen sulphide, waste water, gasoline liquid, sulphur dioxide, sour gas, diesel fuel, diglycolamine, butane and sodium hypochlorite.
A human resources professor at the University of Regina who specializes in occupational health and safety says the refinery has been experiencing a troubling number of problems in recent years.
“Someday, if things don’t change, if there’s not a new plan, a new course of action, a new public accountability there, someone’s going to die,” said Sean Tucker.
Tucker said his primary concern is the series of significant fires and explosions in recent years.
- On October 6, 2011 a pipe ruptured leading to an explosion that injured 52 people, sending several to hospital.
- Then on May 15, 2012 a fire broke out in a pump house. 350 workers had to leave the area and no one was injured.
- A fire broke out in the asphalt processing area on February 11, 2013, with flames shooting 25 metres into the air. Once again no one was injured.
- And then, on December 24, 2013, the refinery was rocked by an explosion that was felt across the city. A recent report concluded this incident was preventable.
No one was injured in the December 2013 incident, but Tucker said “multiple people could have lost their lives. They just got lucky.”
He said refineries are supposed to have plenty of fail-safes built in because they are complex facilities dealing with highly toxic and combustible gasses and liquids.
“It’s not normal at a refinery - a place where it’s high risk for explosions - that you would have this many incidents - serious incidents - over the course of a few years,” Tucker said.
“It’s time there’s a level of seriousness about safety at the refinery. And that may mean changes in management.”
Refinery not responding to CBC’s interview requests
CBC asked the Co-op Refinery for an explanation for the increase in spills and leaks, but it didn’t respond.
However, in a recent interview, Executive Vice-president of Strategy Vic Huard, said “we believe profoundly that all accidents are preventable and that one accident is too many and we work very very hard to prevent them.”
But Huard explained that’s easier said than done.
“It’s a highly complex operation and as we work to get better, and it’s a continuous improvement process, we learn as we go.”
Environment ministry originally told CBC refinery improving
The refinery is required to report all leaks and spills to the Ministry of Environment, which the government posts on its Sask Spills website.
Last week, CBC’s iTeam asked Olesen how concerned the ministry was about the number of leaks and spills at the refinery.
He said, “generally speaking, we are seeing performance improvement in terms of spills at the refinery.”
However, Olesen was basing that on reports from 2010 to 2012, which appear to show a decline.
But that fails to take into account that there have been 24 reported leaks and spills so far this year, triple the number reported in 2013.
The iTeam asked why Olesen said things were improving when the 2014 number seemed to lead to the opposite conclusion.
In an email response, the ministry said, “we cannot speak to the performance in 2014 until all final written reports from the refinery are received and assessed.”
Saskatchewan more focused on productivity than safety
The deputy minister for Occupational Health and Safety told CBC’s iTeam “the ministry shares the concern that you’ve identified in terms of the frequency of incidents occurring on (the Co-op Refinery) site.”
Mike Carr notes that Occupational Health and Safety has laid charges against the refinery related to the October 6, 2011 explosion, which he said shows government takes that incident seriously.
He said Saskatchewan people should be troubled that this province has “the second worst injury rate in the country.” That’s twice as high as Ontario’s rate and almost three times higher than Alberta’s.
Carr said there’s a simple explanation for the high rates in this province: the lack of a safety culture.
“To be blunt, we have a culture that is more focused on getting it done than getting it done safely,” Carr said.