Hugh Kerr, a retired mechanical engineering professor and member of the Squamish Streamkeepers, went to Prince George recently with lots of questions for Enbridge staff about the technical side of its proposed Northern Gateway pipeline.
After spending about an hour and 15 minutes in front of the Joint Review Panel for the project — grilling Enbridge personnel about spill flow rates, the different grades of steel to be used on the pipeline and the integrity of welds — he emerged with lots more questions and even more concerns about the project than he had before.
Kerr, a University of Waterloo (Ont.) professor from 1967 to 2005, is a specialist in welding — an area of particular importance when it comes to pipelines’ structural integrity, he said. Near the end of his career, he convinced the industry to create a welding specialization within the Mechanical Engineering Department at the university.
“There aren’t enough engineers that understand much about welding,” he said, adding that if a pipeline is otherwise sound, but the welds aren’t done right, problems are likely to occur.
Kerr told The Chief on Friday (Oct. 19) that Enbridge officials didn’t seem too keen to divulge much about the technical side of the proposed pipeline — the composition of the steel or details about the welding to be used along the 1,177-kilometre route, for example.
“They do not divulge their final engineering specifications, which makes it difficult to determine whether it’s going to be safe,” said Kerr, who questioned Enbridge officials on Oct. 12 on behalf of the United Fishermen Allied Workers’ Union. “It’s like deciding whether to buy a car without knowing whether it’s going to have seatbelts.”
The problem, Kerr said, is that if certain technical information isn’t shared with the panel, it’s difficult to determine which follow-up questions to ask.
“They don’t want to reveal anything that they don’t have to. Most people who are doing the questioning [at the hearings] don’t have the technical knowledge, and lacking the technical details, won’t know what follow-up questions to ask,” he said.
The transcript of Kerr’s questioning of Enbridge officials is 35 pages long. He asked company officials to provide estimates of how much oil could be expected to flow into the environment during a “full-bore” pipeline rupture, the composition of the steel to be use for both the pipeline and the welds, and procedures for inspecting and signing off on the safety of the finished pipeline.
During one sequence, Kerr brought up the fact that Enbridge officials had said engineering consultants would be among those who would inspect the finished pipeline for defects after it’s built.
Kerr asked an official who, in the event of a spill resulting from a defect in one or more of the welds used on the pipeline, would take responsibility. “If there were a large spill which happened from one of these tie-in welds, who would get sued: the consultant?” he asked.
After an Enbridge lawyer raised an objection, he was told by the panel chair, Sheila Leggett, that his question was a legal one and that “this isn’t the appropriate time and place to be doing that.”
Even though he has long harboured concerns about the proposed pipeline, Kerr hadn’t planned to get involved in the hearings until fairly recently.
“I initially thought that nobody’s going to stop it, that they’re a fairly reputable company and the Prime Minister is going to push it through anyway,” he told The Chief.
When he working at the University of Waterloo, Kerr knew people from TransCanada pipeline company and had a fairly good idea how they operated. But he didn’t know any from Enbridge and started wondering about the company’s practices surrounding the issue of the welds to be used.
“I went on their website and if you read what they put on their website, it’s essentially one line and even what they said was a concern to me,” he said.
“Welding is complex. There are many welding processes, and within each there is a range of possible process conditions — some of which MIGHT be suitable.”
He started to put together a package with his qualifications and some potential questions for Enbridge officials. In early October, the Haisla Nation — whose traditional territory includes the Kitimat area —†asked him to formulate questions on behalf of the Nation.
When he reached Prince George, though, “my contact said, ‘The lawyer’s not comfortable with asking technical questions, so you can go home.’”
He then spoke to a representative of the fishermen’s union, which had signed up as an intervenor at the hearings, and was told, “You can have as much time as you need.”
Kerr said he remains as concerned about the pipeline as ever, in terms of the composition of the steel to be used, the type of welds and how they would hold up under the wet and cold conditions over time, and corrosion.
“The first question we asked was what is the composition of the pipe you’re going to use. Their response was, ‘That’s a secret,’” he said. “They’ve released a document that has headings, but everything else has been whited out.”
He said he’s not sure if he buys the company’s rationale for not answering those questions — that those are commercial secrets and will only be determined if and when the company puts out a request for proposals to pipe suppliers, for example.
For example, Kerr said there’s a Canadian standard limiting the amount of carbon content in the steel to be used for pipelines to 0.25 per cent.
“I’m sure the Enbridge specification only allows 0.10 or 0.11 per cent or somewhere around that [weight percentage],” he said. “But that’s known to all the companies that make pipe — that’s known to Enbridge’s competitors, like TransCanada. They’re all going to have similar limits. So why Enbridge won’t make that known to the public is a mystery.”
He added, “Their technical people don’t like answering detail questions… it was very common of them to try not to answer detail questions. It was very frustrating.
“It’s a pretty worrisome situation. I think if they have a spill, it’s going to be a disaster.”