Could the ‘Big One’ set off a fire at the Burnaby Mountain tank farm?

Residents are concerned about the devastating effects 'the big one' could have on the mountain.

By Dustin Godfrey | June 14, 2021 |9:59 pm

A Burnaby Mountain resident says he’s concerned new data indicating a greater chance of a “Big One” level earthquake in the Vancouver area in the coming decades means his community is at greater risk of a massive fire at the Trans Mountain tank farm.

Karl Perrin, who lives in the UniverCity neighbourhood, said he and others want SFU to take a harder stance on the existing tanks, 6 of which are of particular concern. A fire in the event of an earthquake, Perrin told Burnaby Beacon, would be devastating for his wife, who has a smoke allergy.

“She just starts coughing really hard with any kind of smoke,” Perrin said. “I’m concerned that her and people like her, with asthma, would die, basically.”

And he said the emergency management plan from the university is confusing.

“They said, ‘If there’s an earthquake, go outside,’ and ‘If there’s toxic smoke or fumes, then stay inside,’” Perrin said.

Canada’s 6th modelling of earthquake hazards was released in 2020, and it added 4 previously unaccounted-for “complete-rupture earthquakes” to its seismological history, on top of the 18 already known.

Those extra seismic events drop the average time between earthquakes by a full 100 years, from 532 years to 432 years.

“The Cascadia updates increase the seismic hazard from the Juan de Fuca segment to southern British Columbia by about 8% relative to CanadaSHM5 [the 2015 5th generation seismic hazard model of Canada], for all periods and probabilities,” reads a report on the 6th generation model presented to the World Conference on Earthquake Engineering last September in Japan.

The model refers to 3 sources for seismic activity in the region, including the most well-known Juan de Fuca source, along with the Explorer source to the north of that and the Winona source to the north of Explorer. The latter 2 sources typically generate earthquakes of magnitude around 7.5 to 7.7, according to the report.

But the Juan de Fuca source is where the Big One is expected to come from, with a magnitude 9 earthquake from that source in 1700—321 years ago.

That puts the region just over 110 years from the next major earthquake if one’s looking at averages. But that also means the likelihood of an earthquake before then is also higher than previously thought.

According to the report, the seismic hazard estimates have seen “significant changes” relative to the 2015 model. Southwestern BC saw higher hazard estimates for a number of reasons, including changing ground-motion models and the increase in the Juan de Fuca activity rate.

So what does this have to do with the tank farm?

It’s about the design of the older tanks, constructed in 1953, when the Trans Mountain pipeline was first built, according to Gordon Dunnett, a retired engineer, who spoke to the Burnaby Now in 2019.

On top of that, a group of 4 more retired engineers, who form the Concerned Professional Engineers Society, published their own report last September, following Dunnett’s research.

Together, their research points to the risk that an earthquake could cause the external floating roof tanks to experience sloshing, causing the floating roofs to come into contact with the sides of the tanks and create sparks, exposing the tanks to a fire risk.

Originally, there were 9 tanks, including 6 external floating roof tanks and 3 internal floating roof tanks. It’s the external floating roof tanks that the engineers have raised concerns about.

In an email statement to the Beacon, Trans Mountain stressed that its facilities are designed to “industry best practices and meet the most stringent safety standards,” adding that the facilities get inspected every 5 years. The facilities also include early detection and fire suppression systems, operational procedures to reduce risks, training exercises, site-specific fire plans, regular Canada Energy Regulator inspections and compliance with international standards.

“In more than 65 years of operation, Trans Mountain has not had a storage tank fire or structural incident with any of its tanks. Although tank fires and seismic tank incidents worldwide are extremely rare, our prevention and emergency management programs are an integral part of keeping our terminals operating safely,” a Trans Mountain spokesperson wrote.

Since the terminal was built, the Crown corporation said upgrades have been completed, including at the Burnaby terminal to address potential earthquake-related hazards. That includes the reconstruction of the terminal’s secondary containment berms, upgrades to the fire protection system, and replacement of piping connections on “a number of tanks.”

Trans Mountain added the “low-broad” design of the tanks “means their steel construction makes them flexible enough to absorb earthquake shockwaves,” with containment berms to catch any oil that may spill in case of a pipefitting leak.

But “the serious risk is right now,” Dunnett told the Now, noting that the risk assessment by Kinder Morgan, the previous owner of the pipeline and expansion project, didn’t take into account the issue of oil sloshing in the tanks.

The Concerned Professional Engineers group wrote that there has been a history of “tank failures in 7 earthquakes between 1964 and 2011 and 5 serious fires ignited during these earthquakes.”

That includes the 1999 Kocaeli earthquake in Turkey, a 7.4 magnitude shake that sparked a 5-day oil tank fire and destroyed 30 tanks.

Earlier this year, the CER conducted a fire drill at the facilities, saying the company was able to respond to a fire in 2-and-a-half hours—”well within” the 4-hour goal. However, Perrin said he doesn’t feel comforted by that, and Burnaby’s fire chief has shared similar concerns about tanks burning unhindered for that long.

With 14 new storage tanks being built with earthquake preparedness in mind, Perrin said he wants, more than anything, for the 6 external floating roof tanks decommissioned. That would still be a net gain in storage capacity for Trans Mountain, as its new pipeline triples transport capacity.

“We would like those 6 tanks decommissioned or kept empty or demolished,” he said. “Because that would break the chain from earthquake to smoke coming up to the campus and UniverCity.”

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Dustin Godfrey

Reporter at Burnaby Beacon

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