The map above shows locations discussed in this article. The pipeline route is stylized.

On Saturday, volunteer fire departments from Louisdale, the Town of Port Hawkesbury, and Port Hastings will take part in an emergency preparedness exercise. It’s part and parcel of living next door to a pipeline and processing plant that handles propane, butane, and condensate — highly flammable liquids contained in natural gas piped ashore from Sable island.

The “mock” emergency will take place near the Point Tupper Industrial Park on the Cape Breton side of the Strait of Canso, where ExxonMobil’s processing or fractionation plant is located. A 62-kilometre pipeline has carried natural gas liquids from the gas plant at Goldboro, Guysborough County under the Strait to the frac plant in Point Tupper without incident for the past 16 years.

Provincial legislation requires ExxonMobil to conduct an exercise involving first responders from different neighbouring communities every year. The pipeline is regulated by the Utility and Review Board. The goal of the exercise is to ensure public safety during an emergency — an objective heightened in the wake of fire in Fort McMurray and the tragic blaze involving some of the same liquids in the Lac Megantic derailment nearly two years ago.

Saturday’s scenario begins with a citizen observing what may be a leak in the pipeline near Point Tupper and calling 911 to report it.

According to Louisdale Fire Chief Cecil Frost, that will kick off an exercise that will involve the arrival of fire trucks, police, gas detection equipment, roadblocks and an ambulance to rescue an injured worker. ExxonMobil isn’t making the exact details of the exercise available.

“As a matter of practice, we do not share scenario details in advance,” said ExxonMobil’s public relations manager Merle MacIsaac. “The information is provided to participants during the exercise scenario so that they get the benefit of a simulated situation and response. During an actual incident, we contact 911 to dispatch local first responders as needed.”

Saturday’s exercise is a far more ambitious simulation than the “table-top” exercise conducted last September at the Mulgrave Fire Hall on the mainland side of the Strait — about 120 km down two-lane Route #344 from the Goldboro Gas Plant. That exercise was essentially a discussion among fire chiefs from Mulgrave, the Seven Communities (Hadleyville), and Louisdale with several operations managers from ExxonMobil in Guysborough County and Halifax.

A company called Enegry Consultants International (ECI) prepared a report on that September 13, 2015 exercise for the NS Utility and Review Board. It was filed last week — you can read the five-page document here.

The ECI consultant said it found “no significant issues with communication between ExxonMobil and the external first responder agencies” during the last exercise. That said, ECI flagged a number of concerns in its report to the UARB which deserve more public attention.

The report says:

Without a more formal role-playing format including deployment to on-scene areas, there was a reduced ability to test the communications systems, roles, and decision making of the first responders. However, the opportunity for the sharing of ideas at various decision points somewhat offset this drawback.

The report also questioned whether the company responsible for the pipeline and gas plant infrastructure would be notified in the event a citizen observed an incident and phoned in their observation to the Province’s 911 system:

The exercise was initiated with a simulated call to 911, and pager notifications were made by Canso Dispatch to each of the fire chiefs. A point of discussion was how ExxonMobil is notified if the emergency is reported directly to 911. Apparently, ExxonMobil is not on 911 Dispatch’s callout list for emergencies. This is something that ExxonMobil should investigate further and, if necessary, make the necessary changes with 911 Dispatch.

Brady Lyall, the engineer with Energy Consultants International who wrote the report, says the provincial 911 system was not used as part of the simulated emergency because the system “doesn’t work well during a test or scenario situation.” Instead, the exercise began with a simulated call from a citizen walking along Highway 344 (between Goldboro and Mulgrave ) who noticed a vapour cloud and hissing sound in the vicinity of the pipeline. That information from the citizen was given directly to Canso Dispatch, the nearest local agency under contract to EMO to receive information from 911. Canso immediately paged the three fire departments participating in the exercise : Mulgrave, Seven Communities (near Hadleyville) and Louisdale , which had at that time just taken over from the Port Hawkesbury Fire Department as the first responder on the Cape Breton side of the Strait in the event of an incident near Point Tupper.

The absence of 911 from the simulation begs the question of how well information would be communicated during a “real life” emergency. A 911 call could be received by operators in any one of four “zones’ in the Province: Valley, Halifax, Truro, or Cape Breton. Here’s the response from the NS Emergency Management Office when Asked if all dispatchers in the area surrounding the 62-kilometer natural gas liquids pipeline and gas plant facilities now have ExxonMobil on their “call” list, Sarah Gillis, a spokesperson with the Nova Scotia Emergency Management Office, responded by email as follows:

A person calls 911 and a call taker will find out where they are and what kind of emergency is happening. The call is forwarded to a dispatch agency which will send help. First responder organizations choose a dispatch centre and they are operated by a public entity or a private business. We do not have the information on the dispatch centre for Richmond County fire departments.

By all appearances, the decision about who to call in the event of a propane or butane leak is not something that overly concerns the province. It’s not their department. That decision-making rests squarely with local dispatchers — whether it is a public entity such as the RCMP for the Halifax area or Canso Dispatch in Guysborough .

Billy MacDonald owns Canso Dispatch, one of the privately owned agencies contracted by EMO to receive calls from 911 and relay the information to the appropriate first responder, such as fire and police. It’s Canso’s job to dispatch one of 32 volunteer fire departments in Guysborough County in the event of a gas plant or pipeline emergency on the mainland. Billy MacDonald says Canso Dispatch does have ExxonMobil on its “call out” list and Canso would “definitely call” the oil company in the event of an emergency. He says he doesn’t know which dispatcher in Richmond County Cape Breton 911 would contact to call out the Louisdale Fire Department, or, whether that Dispatch has ExxonMobil on its speed dial.

“I don’t see it as major issue because if someone calls 911 — Dispatch calls us, and we call ExxonMobil,” said Lousidale Fire Chief Cecil Frost. “I have the numbers for the gas plant and Exxon’s Emergency Operations centre in Halifax. If something goes wrong, they are likely to know before we do because the company monitors the system and the controls. People can also call ExxonMobil emergency response directly — there are signs posted around the Point Tupper Fractionation plant with the number to call.

“I feel comfortable,” continued Frost, who also is EMO co-ordinator for the Municipality of Richmond. “We work closely with ExxonMobil and the Maritimes Northeast Pipeline.” (It transports natural gas mostly to markets in the US and is separate from the pipeline built to carry as much as 20,000 barrels a day of natural gas liquids, although that volume has been substantially below that amount for several years)

“Two years ago ExxonMobil purchased a TMR2 two-way radio system so all the first responders as well as the managers of the Goldboro Gas Plant and the Fractionation Plant at Point Tupper could be on the same channel,” recalls Chief Frost. “That worked well during the last exercise.”

The report agrees the two-way radios and cellphones worked “very well” during the exercise from the Mulgrave fire hall. It also noted the communications equipment was not actually tested from anywhere along the pipeline right-of-way.

“In our view, if there was an incident involving the pipeline, the fractionation plant or marine services such as the Coast Guard, we feel it is appropriate for 911 to notify ExxonMobil,” said Brady Lyall when contacted in Winnipeg by the Halifax Examiner. Lyall says he won’t be monitoring the next emergency readiness exercise this weekend but a collegue from ECI will.

Meanwhile, ExxonMobil is currently conducting a review of the structural integrity of the 8” pipeline carrying natural gas liquids. It’s looking for any cracks, work it has told the regulator it expects to complete the end of this month.

The ECI report’s second recommendation urged ExxonMobil to ensure all volunteer fire depts had up-to-date Emergency Response reference information from the company after a couple of chiefs indicated they did not. Louisdale volunteer Fire Chief Frost said he received up-to-date information on ExxonMobil’s Emergency Response Plan from the Port Hawkesbury first responders earlier this week.

ExxonMobil’s Merle MacIsaac had this to say: “Detailed documentation described in the report recommendation has been updated, and is being distributed to responders”.

Equally significant, the 2015 ECI report noted “regarding gas detection equipment, the fire departments stated that they previously possessed this equipment but because it was never used, they discontinued its use.”

The Louisdale Cape Breton Fire Dept purchased its own gas detection equipment this spring.
“We practice with it,” says Fire Chief Frost. “it’s very expensive to keep calibrated.” His detachment has about 15 active volunteers and another half dozen who are registered.

Shawn Andrews is the Emergency Management Organization co-ordinator for the Municipality of Guysborough. County. Although the Guysborough Fire Dept does not own gas detection equipment, Andrews says it has “an arrangement with the Municipality” to use its gear. Andrews was unaware of the mock emergency scheduled to take place across the Strait in Cape Breton this weekend nor did he attend the last “table-top” simulation down the road in Mulgrave last September.

Outside observers might be forgiven for wondering how closely communities spread over a wide geographic area on both sides of the Strait could co-ordinate resources and work together in the horrible event of a real life disaster. The report on last year’s exercise concludes with this statement:

Energy Consultants International continue to see value in performing these exercises. The exercises provide training to the first responders, some of whom may not have been involved in previous exercises, as well as identify shortcomings that can be rectified prior to a genuine emergency.

A smiling white woman with short silver hair wearing dark rimmed glasses and a bright blue blazer.

Jennifer Henderson

Jennifer Henderson is a freelance journalist and retired CBC News reporter.

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  1. The most heartening thing about this is that after the 2015 ‘table top’ exercise, gas detection equipment was actually purchased by the fire department. Kudos to them!
    But the tough questions remains why it would take a citizen walking along a pipeline to detect a leak–why isn’t this detected immediately by the company’s monitoring system.But if it’s on locals to detect it, then good at least someone’s askin “who ya gonna call?”

  2. When were the last multi agency emergency response exercises at the Bedford Magazine, the two container terminals ,NSP Tufts Cove and the grain elevators ?