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Expert Expresses Concern About Refinery Safety In Wake of Irving Blast

Image: Nate Guimond.

SAINT JOHN – A professor whose primary area of research is occupational health and safety says oil refineries surrounded by communities need to work harder to ensure safety.

A massive refinery blast shook Saint John on Monday, sending flames and black smoke into the sky but causing only minor injuries, leaving officials relieved it wasn’t far worse.

Kevin Scott, Irving Oil’s chief refining and supply officer, told reporters at an afternoon briefing that the company was “very grateful today — and being Thanksgiving, I think it’s appropriate.”

He said it’s not clear exactly what caused the blast, but there had been some kind of malfunction in the refinery’s diesel treating unit, which removes sulphur from diesel fuel.

Sean Tucker, an associate professor of human resource management at the University of Regina, says Canada has more than a dozen refineries but the Irving facility is by far the largest.

He says there’s a lot of public concern in this country about how oil is transported, but not much attention is paid to the safety issues around refineries themselves.

“I think we need more attention there, and it would lead to safe proximity for residential communities,” he said.

The facility in Saint John is not immune to safety issues: earlier this year, a butane leak prompted the evacuation of businesses in at least two streets on the city’s east side.

And last fall, Irving was ordered to pay $4 million after pleading guilty to 34 counts stemming from the investigation into the Lac Megantic disaster in 2013.

RELATED: Irving Oil Sentenced For Offences Under The Transportation Of Dangerous Goods Act

Those charges under the Transportation of Dangerous Goods Act resulted from a joint investigation by Transport Canada and the RCMP that was prompted by the deadly Quebec train derailment.

Giving another example, Tucker said a new residential expansion was planned near the Co−op Refinery Complex in Regina. Authorities from the health department, province, environment department and the refinery itself were opposed, but the city gave the go−ahead.

“What’s problematic is that these refinery capacities will grow over time and the residential community will remain in the same place,” Tucker said.

He said one issue is that these large refineries operate in smaller jurisdictions in provinces such as Saskatchewan, New Brunswick and Newfoundland and Labrador.

“And my concern is that there’s a power imbalance between the power regulator and these large refining companies,” said Tucker.

Compounding the issue is aging infrastructure, which Tucker said can lead to “fires at these refineries every two years or so.”

He adds that as refineries grow old, moisture can seep into the insulation around pipes and corrode the metal over time.

“Of course when you get that situation, then you get leaks and an ignition source, then you’ve got a problem,” he said.

Tucker said what’s needed is a rigorous safety program, where pipes are visually inspected and seals are checked.

Tucker said it’s in companies’ best interest to make refinery safety a priority.

“If they have these incidents, it can lead to significant loss of production for some time,” he said.

“And if it’s a larger accident and spreads to half the site, then they could lose hundreds of billions of dollars.”

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By Hina Alam, The Canadian Press