Bad Dreams on Burnaby Mountain -
Life in a Leafy Suburb is Haunted By Threats of Oil Spills, Explosions and Killer Firestorms

by Tom Sandborn 2020-10-18

“Some of you may die, but it’s a sacrifice I’m willing to make.” – Lord Farquaard, in the animated classic Shrek.

“Fossil fuels require sacrifice zones: they always have.” Naomi Klein, 2016

Imagine living next door to an ammunition dump. Imagine going to bed knowing that the dump could blow at any moment, creating a fireball that consumes buildings outside its borders, including your home. Your children’s school is engulfed in flames and that the only escape route from your neighborhood has been blocked by a cloud of toxic smoke that makes escape impossible and death by inhalation likely.

Welcome to the lives of the folks who live and work on Burnaby Mountain, just below Simon Fraser University in BC’s Lower Mainland and close to the notorious storage tank farm at the end of the Transmountain (formerly Kinder Morgan) pipeline.

Tank fire
150 people  died when the Tacoa tank farm, built on a steep slope just like the TMX farm, went up in flames

As many readers will know, there are many good reasons to oppose the expansion of this pipeline and its tank farm. The proposed expansion will mean a disastrous increase in green-house gas emissions, a  death blow to hopes for reconciliation between Indigenous nations and Canada,  and an end to hopes of Canada hitting  our Paris Accord emission reduction targets.  The increased tanker traffic through Vancouver Harbour demanded by the expanded pipeline will create the probability of marine accidents, spilling toxic petroleum products into the harbour. (Full disclosure. I have been actively involved in opposing this project, and was arrested for civil disobedience at the tank farm gates in 2018.)

But for folks on Burnaby Mountain, the issue is personal. The threat of a catastrophic boil- over event occurring at the tank farm, sending a column of flaming oil and toxic chemicals high into the air and down onto nearby homes and schools is causing sleepless nights on the mountain.

 “I feel expendable,” Emily Corenblith told me. “We’re in a sacrifice zone,” said the neighbor, who lives a short walk from the tank farm.

Corenblith added that the sacrifices imposed on native people by fossil fuel infrastructure projects were much worse than those she and her neighbors endure.  But still, “I feel like our well-being doesn’t matter.”

The pipeline and its Burnaby tank farm were a bad idea in 1953 when it was first built. The proposed expansion, hotly contested by Indigenous nations, environmentalists and threatened neighbors, is even worse. In addition to a disastrous increase in green-house gas emissions, the expanded pipeline increases the danger of oil leaks along its 1,150 km route, threatening over 1300 water courses. (  For more detailed information about the proposed expansion and the Indigenous led opposition, check out Protect the Inlet, at https://protecttheinlet.ca/ and Coast Protectors at https://www.coastprotectors.ca/ )

Retired speech language pathologist Karl Perrin lives a kilometer up slope from the tank farm in UniverCity, the planned community that borders the campus. When he and his wife Ann moved in, he says, “We didn’t have a clue the tank farm existed.”

Perrin worries that a fire at the tank farm could strand him and his wife, (who lives with asthma and could experience life threatening complications in a smoky environment), on the endangered mountain top along with over thirty thousand students, faculty, staff and other UniverCity residents. He worries that escape on the only road off the mountain would be blocked by fire and the plume of toxins and smoke it would create. As a 2016 study done for SFU by PGL Environmental Consultants concludes: “In Brief, PGL finds there is an increased risk to SFU from the TMEP.” (Trans Mountain Expansion Project.) http://world.350.org/vancouver/files/2017/02/5_SFU_TMEP-Risk-Summary-PGL.pdf

 Roslyn Hart has lived near Burnaby Mountain for 40 years. While her current home is a twenty-minute walk from the tank farm, she says it is well within the hazard zone that would be created by a fire among the overcrowded fuel tanks. Living so close to a possible explosion, she wryly notes, “…creates a certain unease.”

Like Hart, author, actress and activist Elan Gibson lives within the 5.2 km “hazard zone” surrounding the tank farm.

“I live on Capitol Hill,” she says, “and we get all the winds from Burnaby Mountain.” A member of BROKE, the Burnaby Residents Opposing Kinder Morgan Expansion, (http://brokepipelinewatch.ca/ ) Gibson says she used to love to hike the trails on Burnaby Mountain but became alarmed when she started having nose bleeds, which she suspects may have been caused by  gases leaking from the tank farm.

Chris Bowcock, chief of the Burnaby Fire Department, has weighed in on the project, and his 2015 report is dire.

The report (https://www.burnaby.ca/AssetFactory.aspx?did=16919 ) warns that the proposed expansion of the tank farm will make it very difficult for his department to successfully fight any fire that starts within its proposed and  crowded new layout of storage tanks.  Bowcock warns that the proposed tank farm expansion would increase the risk of community impacts by 70%.

The Concerned Professional Engineers of BC are worried too. (https://concernedengineers.org/) In a study on the group’s website, Gordon Dunnett writes: 

“KMC’s (Kinder Morgan, prior owner before the Trudeau buy out that created TMX) structural engineer chose to increase the BMTF (Burnaby Mountain Tank Farm) hazardous material storage capacity while ignoring EFR (External Floating Roof) Tank failures in seven earthquakes between 1964 and 2011 and five serious fires ignited during these earthquakes. “(The existing tanks in the tank farm, built in the 1950s, were constructed to the disaster prone EFR model.) 

To global concerns about tank farm safety, add the increased danger that an earthquake could shake the tanks, make the contents slosh, deform the shape of the tanks and make an explosion or boil-over event more likely, particularly with the older External Floating Roof tanks. (A boil over event occurs when a fire is ignited in a tank by sparks created by human error or seismic shifting. The fire within the tank burns down until the water contents of the stored  petroleum  is compressed and heated enough to cause a steam explosion, blowing the roof off the tank and pouring fire and boiling oil down on the areas around the tank. On Burnaby Mountain, such a boil over would likely ignite fires in other tanks and endanger the schools and residences that border the tank farm. )

John Clague, a retired SFU expert on seismic events, says that the tank farm represents an unacceptable risk.

“The original 1953 tanks are old and were designed to a poor standard. Tanks like those have failed many times.” Clague points out that several geologic faults run close enough to Burnaby Mountain to cause concern that earthquakes might damage the tanks and possibly spark a disastrous fire and even more disastrous boil-over events, endangering many lives.

Daniel Tetrault
Daniel Tetrault, president of the Burnaby Teachers' Association, is worried about the threat to his members and to the children they teach if the TMX tank farm blows up
Daniel Tetrault, the president of the Burnaby Teachers’ Association, whose members teach at public schools that are threatened by the tank farm expansion, told me that “The safety of our members, of students and of school staff is threatened by this project. We are not reassured that this tank farm can be operated without unacceptable dangers to all of them.”    

Tetrault may be right. In December of 1982, for example, the Tacoa fire in Venezuela burned for three days, killing over 150 victims. This facility, significantly, was built on a steep slope that made fighting the fire more difficult, just as Chief Bowcock predicts will be the case in a tank farm fire on Burnaby Mountain.

I reached out to TMX and asked for response to concerns raised by the Burnaby Fire Department and the Concerned Professional Engineers. The company did not respond directly to my questions, but did email a year-old press release that said, in part: 

“The location and spacing for the new terminal tanks meet all relevant regulatory requirements and are consistent with environmental best practices of using existing infrastructure to minimize disturbances. The tank locations will result in set-backs greater than those established in Burnaby bylaws.”

So, I guess the worried folks on Burnaby Mountain should just go back to sleep and ignore their nightmares.

With files from Bob Hackett. A version of this commentary first appeared in the National Observer on October 5, 2020 ( https://www.nationalobserver.com/ )

Tom Sandborn lives and writes on unceded Indigenous territory in Vancouver. He welcomes your feedback and story tips at tos65@telus.net

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