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Tank farm fire could trap thousands at SFU

University still needs more information from Kinder Morgan to make proper emergency plans

Tens of thousands of people would be trapped at Simon Fraser University in the event of a major fire at the Burnaby Mountain tank farm, and the university is unable to properly plan for it without more information from Kinder Morgan.

Worst-case scenario infernos would force the fire department to close the only two access roads to SFU, and it’s not clear if people on campus would be safe from the resulting plumes.

“There is not a plan; there’s not a plan specific to that scenario,” said Terry Waterhouse, SFU’s chief safety officer. “We would have to do what we call ‘shelter in place’ and keep people on the mountain.”

There are only two access roads to SFU, and they intersect just above the storage facility, where massive tanks holds 1.6 million barrels of oil. Kinder Morgan wants to twin the Trans Mountain pipeline and expand the storage facility, tripling capacity to roughly 5.6 million barrels by adding 14 new tanks. Some of the new tanks would be about 150 metres from the road to SFU.

Information from the company has been lacking, even for the current tank farm, according to Waterhouse.

“We had nothing from Kinder Morgan. We had had no commitment we would get unredacted plans from them. We had no commitment to work together. We’ve had all but minimal communication with them,” he said.
SFU commissioned two studies to enter as evidence for the NEB hearing. The first examined the current tank farm risk assessments and impacts on SFU. The second report was a “gap analysis” to analyze the company’s risk assessments and determine what information was still missing.  

“Basically, what we found is the risk assessments to date are not rigorous enough, and without those risk assessments and cooperation and collaboration with Kinder Morgan we cannot prepare emergency plans and protocols that we require,” Waterhouse said.

Missing information included risks from fire-related emissions, like smoke and sulphur dioxide. Moving forward, Waterhouse would like to see those gaps filled.

“Because we take the health and safety of our community very seriously, we would want and we need these issues addressed, and we will continue to push on in the process and be demanding of Kinder Morgan and Trans Mountain to provide the information we need as a community in a very unique geographic situation,” Waterhouse said. “We’re close and we’re potentially isolated, and we want that clearly known.”

SFU’s average population fluctuates between 30,000 to 35,000 staff and students. There are also 3,200 residents living at UniverCity, and the population is projected to grow over the next decade. There are trails leading off the mountain, but they are very steep and would not be suitable for a mass evacuation, Waterhouse explained.

Chris Bowcock, Burnaby’s deputy fire chief, said his department is responsible for evacuating people, but an organization the size of SFU would typically have its own plans in place to help make that process more efficient. Even if the university had an evacuation plan, the department still could not move them through a hazard area close to the tank farm, which makes escaping effectively impossible.

“If we can’t safely move people down the road,” Bowcock said, “(then) we don’t have the ability to evacuate SFU.”

Bowcock confirmed the department would use a “defend in place” strategy and would control the air vents for SFU buildings to try to keep smoke out.

No one from Kinder Morgan was available for comment.

The tank farm has been operating since the 1950s, and there has never been a major fire at the facility.

For more on this story, go to Jennifer Moreau's blog.