No Trivial Matter: Imagining A Pipeline Spill in Ottawa

By Mike Fletcher, February 28, 2014

[caption id="attachment_2320" align="alignright" width="120"]A copy of the doorhangers distributed by Ecology Ottawa's volunteers. A copy of the doorhangers distributed by Ecology Ottawa's volunteers.[/caption]

When Ecology Ottawa volunteers went door to door with thousands of flyers this past summer and fall, they came with a simple question:

“Are you prepared for an oil spill in Ottawa?”

You might think the question and the accompanying graphic were alarmist. But not if you lived in Mayflower, Arkansas or Kalamazoo, Michigan, two U.S. towns stricken by major diluted bitumen (“dilbit”) spills over the last three years. Those communities have had a first-hand look at the day-to-day reality after a spill.

Here’s how a diluted bitumen spill in Ottawa would most likely go down, given the emergency systems we have in place and the regulatory and political framework governing pipeline development.

The Start: What’s this Awful Smell?

Well before the pipeline control room realizes there’s anything wrong, Ottawa’s dilbit disaster will start with calls to 911 complaining about an awful “chemical smell”. Depending on the location of the line rupture and the prevailing winds, there may well be people showing up at hospital emergency rooms with dizziness and nausea. The frail and those with respiratory problems will have a very bad day.

Dilbit contains about 30% diluent1, the substance that turns tar sands bitumen2 into a liquid that can be transported by pipeline. Although the oil companies consider their diluent formulas proprietary and don’t share their exact contents, most material data safety sheets refer to liquid petroleum gas3. So when the pipeline breaks, even on the coldest Ottawa winter night, the mixture will boil as its leaves the pipe, releasing large concentrations of propane and butane and plenty of benzene, just one of several substances that will increase the lifetime cancer risk for anyone who comes into even light contact with the dilbit vapour.

The gusher of dilbit will continue for some time. In Kalamazoo, the dilbit flowed for 17 hours after the initial rupture4. Even if we could do better in Ottawa (highly debatable), we will be dealing with a pipe that’s over a meter in diameter and pumping at high speed, at high and fluctuating pressures, so a small spill is out of the question.

The scenario we have started to describe here assumes there is no fire. A fire at the spill site is unlikely, but it’s not impossible. The gases that boil off the dilbit will all be flammable. If those gases combine with air in the right concentration and there’s a source of ignition at hand, there will be a huge fire similar to the one that just happened on the Trans Canada Main Line near Winnipeg and have happened periodically over the years on the Trans Canada line. Similar, except that the fire will not go out quickly when the line is isolated as the bitumen portion of the mixture will produce a prolonged and sooty oil fire.

The Early Hours: What’s Going On? What Is This Stuff?

In the first hours of Ottawa’s dilbit disaster, the city will be a confused place. Early responders in the field, at 911 call centres, and in hospitals won’t know what’s happening with the pipe, and they won’t know what it contains. Confusion will reign about what’s in the pipe, because the Transportation of Dangerous Goods (TDG) number for dilbit, 1267, is the same one that is used for all grades of oil5. It’s conceivable, even probable, that first responders will refer to material data safety sheets for conventional crude oil and act as if they are responding to a conventional oil spill. This will be a serious and potentially deadly mistake for emergency personnel as they respond to emergency calls.

Even when it’s established that the pipeline contains dilbit, we won’t have complete knowledge of the pipeline’s contents, since the diluent formulas are proprietary. Even with timely information on the diluent’s exact composition, there will be confusion until we can determine which one of several products, from which one of several producers, was travelling through the ruptured pipe when the spill occurred. And even then, we won’t know how flammable or toxic the material is until it’s tested. That’s what happened during the Lac Mégantic tragedy, where material believed to be conventional crude was not well understood. Exact material properties were only determined well after the disaster, far too late to protect first responders.

The First Day: Can I Go Back to My House? Can I Drink the Water?

Depending on the size of the spill, its spread pattern, the outdoor temperature, and prevailing winds, a sizable evacuation may be required. The proposed pipeline wraps around the west and the south of the city, so prevailing winds will send toxic vapours through the outer suburbs toward the heart of the city. Gases will be released from the dilbit as the material ‘ages’ over several days, and odours will persist long after the evacuees receive the all-clear to return. The evacuation and subsequent stench will be a cruel irony for those Stittsville residents who spent so much time and energy fighting the Carp Dump.

Drinking water will be a more vexing problem. The pipeline runs through a watershed above Ottawa’s main water treatment plants, Britannia and Lemieux Island. The pipeline also cuts between Richmond and Munster, two small areas on their own well systems. Each of these two communities is located about six kilometres from the pipeline, and a spill on the highland between them would permanently disable their municipal wells.

Although it would require a large spill to place significant amounts of dilbit above Ottawa’s main water plants, the City would have to spend a great deal of time and energy and incur significant cost to confirm that the water supply is safe. While those studies are in progress, expect a run on bottled water—and even after urban Ottawa’s water is declared safe, many citizens will want to stay clear of tap water. With good reason: as I’ll discuss in a future post, a dilbit spill is never completely cleaned up6.

At private wells in rural Ottawa, the story will play out differently. Most private rural wells are on the shallow Oxford aquifer. A post-Walkerton disaster survey of Ontario’s aquifers rated the Oxford system as porous, and its abundant exchange with surface water would make it easy for the spill to rapidly contaminate groundwater. This is a very big deal: In Nebraska, for example, Trans Canada was successfully pressured to reroute the proposed Keystone XL pipeline over most of the state to avoid some of the recharge area for the Ogallala aquifer7.

Once groundwater contamination starts, it will spread. Rural residents will have to choose between paying to get water shipped to their homes or pulling up stakes and heading elsewhere.

The First Week: Who Will Clean Up This Awful Mess?

In the Kalamazoo spill, a large spill response was mobilized, and Enbridge, the pipeline operator, has spent $800 million to date to clean up the spill8,9. It’s likely that if a company with deep pockets owns the Energy East pipeline at the time of a spill, it will make a similarly robust (but only partially successful) attempt to clean up the spill.

A robust response is not a sure thing, however, as company fortunes can change over time, and assets can move around between owners. In British Columbia, the Kinder Morgan pipeline has changed hands a couple times in the past decade. The rail line through Mégantic, Quebec was once Canadian Pacific’s mainline to the Maritimes, but at the time of this summer’s tragic derailment was owned by a spin-off company without the financial resources or skill to take responsibility for clean-up and restoration10. Federal government advertising states that companies are held accountable for their messes. But even if regulations are enforced—and they often aren't11—how much can be bled from a small stone to fix a big environmental disaster?

In the first week after a large spill, people will realize that Ottawa has changed forever. Then they’ll start asking long-term questions about water, farmland, and where and how they can live. In my next posts, I’ll discuss what the multi-year clean-up effort might look like, and why a spill is such a serious risk.

[caption id="attachment_2321" align="aligncenter" width="283"]Map Original The proposed route of the Energy East pipeline through Ottawa and past the Mississipi and Rideau Rivers.[/caption]


1. Diluted Bitumen Chemical and Physical Properties. Heather D. Dettman. NAS Committee for a Study of Pipeline Transportation of Diluted Bitumen – Second Meeting. October 2012. Natural Resources Canada.

2. Material Safety Data Sheet – Bitumen Emulsion. Cenovus Energy Inc. 500 Centre Street SE, PO Box 766. Calgary, AB T2G 0M5.

3.  Material Data Safety Sheet – Natural Gas Liquids. Cenovus Energy Inc. 500 Centre Street SE, PO Box 766. Calgary, AB T2G 0M5.

4. The Dilbit Disaster: Inside The Biggest Oil Spill You've Never Heard Of. Inside Climate News. Link:

5. Wiki free encyclopedia definition of UN number system at:

6.The Dilbit Disaster 3 Years Later: Sunken Oil Is Looming Threat to Kalamazoo River. Inside Climate News, July 25, 2013. Link:

7. Keystone Pipeline Will be Rerouted. The New York Times, November 14, 2011. Link:

8. The Dilbit Disaster: Inside The Biggest Oil Spill You've Never Heard Of. Inside Climate News. Link:

9. ^ a b "Enbridge, Inc. Hazardous Liquid Pipeline Rupture". National Transportation Safety Board. Retrieved 2012-07-11.

10.  Lac-Mégantic: What is Montreal, Maine & Atlantic Railway? The Montreal Gazette, August 28, 2013. Link:

11. Tar Secret #3 Alberta Exempts 96% of Climate Pollution from Carbon Fees or Climate Action. Vancouver Observer October 10th, 2013. Link:

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