Sask. expert concerned about homes near oil refineries following Saint John explosion

Aging infrastructure and residential communities nearing Canadian refineries are concerns for one expert following an explosion at a site in Saint John on Monday.

Researcher Sean Tucker says similar events occurring every 2 years, on average

An explosion at an Irving Oil refinery in Saint John Monday sent at least four contractors to hospital. (Submitted by Joseph Comeau)

Aging infrastructure and residential communities near Canadian refineries are concerns for one expert following an explosion at a site in Saint John on Monday.

The explosion and fire at an Irving Oil refinery sent at least four contractors to hospital with non-life threatening injuries.

A malfunction in a diesel-treating unit is believed to be the source of the blast that sent flames shooting an estimated 30 metres high and saw a plume of black smoke cover most of the city's east side that morning.

The Irving Oil facility is the largest refinery in Canada. It is capable of producing more than 320,000 barrels per day.

Sean Tucker, University of Regina associate professor, said many of the country's oil refineries were built in the 1960s, or earlier, so infrastructure is aging.

The occupational health and safety researcher, who's considered an expert on refineries, said piping at the sites can corrode when moisture gets between the pipes and the insulation covering it.

"That's problematic because over time, it can lead to holes in the piping and gases or liquids escaping," he said. "If there's an ignition source, then you can have the potential for a catastrophic explosion."

Researcher Sean Tucker, pictured, says his research shows similar explosions at Canadian refineries ever one and a half to two years. (CBC News)

On average, Tucker said a major fire or explosion takes place every year and a half to two years at the 15 refineries in Canada.

The Co-op refinery in Regina experienced similar blasts in both 2011 and 2013.

A spokesperson for Federated Co-operatives Limited (FCL) and The Co-op Refinery Complex (CRC) said the company is committed to upgrading and renewing equipment to ensure safety at the Regina refinery.

FCL said it plans to spend about $250 million by the end of 2018 on inspections, equipment maintenance, repairs and new equipment. The company said it also works to improve safety through training and education for employees. 

"We are committed to investing in a sustainable culture of safety and reliability 24/7, 365 days a year," said director of communications Brad DeLorey in an emailed statement. 

DeLorey said FCL's thoughts are with those affected by the incident at the Irving plant. 

Too close for comfort?

Tucker said explosions and fires at refineries are a major concern, especially considering how close many residential communities now are to the plants. He said when the Regina refinery was built in 1935, it was on the prairie outside of the city. Now, urban development has come face-to-face with the site.

The refinery itself has also expanded. The country's fifth largest site of its kind, it once produced 500 barrels a day and now can produce about 135,000 barrels in the same time frame.

"One would imagine that if one was starting from scratch building a new refinery in Canada, one would select a site away from residential neighbourhoods, given the emissions from refineries and the risk of a large event," Tucker said.

Tucker says explosions occurred at the Co-op refinery in Regina in both 2011 and 2013. (CBC News)

Tucker said it's important that the companies running the sites continually monitor air quality and pipe thickness and invest in preventative maintenance.

Red flags in the industry

While he said the main goal is to get product out, preventative maintenance is "critical" to both public safety and the overall sustainability of site operation. He said the Irving explosion may end up costing the company over $100 million.

Tucker said communities around refineries should be provided with accurate, credible and up-to-date information about health and safety at the site and emissions. He said residents should have the opportunity to ask questions.

He stressed the importance of having the correct number of air quality monitors, checked by people both within and outside of the company.

"If one goes down and you've only got one left, that leaves a hole there and the community could be put at risk from a release of emissions," he said.

The exact cause of the Irving refinery explosion is unknown and is currently under investigation.

With files from Kayla Hounsell 

About the Author

Alex Soloducha

Alex Soloducha is a web writer/reporter for CBC Saskatchewan.