1. Refinery explosion

Irving refinery. Photo: Bruce Livesey

Canadian Press reporters Holly McKenzie-Sutter and Brett Bundale interviewed Jonathan Wright, an American contractor who was working just 25 metres from the site of the explosion at the Irving Oil refinery Monday:

First, Jonathan Wright heard a loud hissing.

Then he was thrown to the ground and turned to see a wall of orange, as flames surrounded him and several other workers after a massive explosion at the Irving Oil refinery in Saint John, N.B., on Monday morning.

“You could not see anything besides smoke and flames,” Wright said. “I thought we were done right there.”

“It was a (expletive) nightmare, I’ve never seen anything like that in my entire life,” Wright said in an interview on Tuesday.

“I thought I was dead for sure.”

Wright said he had to jump through high scaffolding and pipes several metres in the air to escape. He didn’t realize his coworkers were behind him until after he was outside, and he thought they were likely killed.

CBC reporter Bobbi-Jean MacKinnon interviewed Terry MacEachern, a boilermaker who was also working at the refinery when it exploded Monday:

He says it was a chaotic and scary situation when the blast hit, pushing some workers into “panic mode.”

At first, it just sounded like a crane had dropped a load of steel and “everyone just kind of paused and looked at each other,” wondering what had happened.

Then all of a sudden, “it was like [a] sonic boom.”

MacEachern, 36, who was about 180 metres from the origin of the blast, says the shockwave knocked him back about a foot. Other workers who were closer to the site “flung” 10 feet across the ground.

“You could feel it literally right through your body. It was pretty intense.”

A black mushroom cloud filled the sky and flames shot 30 metres high.

People were “sliding” down scaffolding and yelling, “run, run run.”

“Not knowing whether the rest of the plant is going to blow up or not, it’s kind of a scary moment,” said MacEachern.

“When you’re seeing 280-pound guys keeping up with you, you know it’s go time.”

Safety record

“Sean Tucker, an associate professor at the University of Regina who specializes in occupational health and safety, said there’s a lot of public concern in Canada about how oil is transported, but not much attention is paid to refineries themselves,” reports the Canadian Press:

Tucker said one issue is that large refineries and similar businesses often operate in smaller jurisdictions in provinces such as Saskatchewan, New Brunswick and Newfoundland and Labrador.

“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.”

Irving said that the explosion happened after a diesel treating unit — machinery that helps remove sulfur from the diesel — malfunctioned.

A page from the 1998 safety report.

This is not the first time the refinery exploded; a man was killed in an eerily similar explosion in 1998. A workplace safety report explained:

At approximately 9:30 am on Tuesday, 9 June 1998, an explosion and fire occurred at the Irving Oil Refinery in Saint John. One worker, William Hackett, who was in the immediate vicinity, was killed as a result of this catastrophic event. Another worker was taken to hospital with minor injuries.

The safety report detailed that the 1998 explosion happened at the hydrotreater reactor feed furnace, which by my untrained eyes appears to be the same sort of equipment where Monday’s explosion occurred.

The safety report made five recommendations, which it said “if implemented would prevent a similar occurrence.”

Four years later, in March 2002, an explosion at the refinery sent three workers to hospital with burns, reported CTV.

In September 2012, there was yet another explosion at the refinery that sent a worker to the hospital, reported the CBC:

The incident occurred at about 11:52 a.m. AT during scheduled hydrogen plant turnaround work, company spokeswoman Carolyn Van der Veen said in a short statement that was issued about two hours after emergency crews were called.

A carbonate tank undergoing maintenance work was overpressurized, she said.

More recently, Irving Oil was ordered to pay $4 million after an investigation related to the 2013 Lac Mégantic disaster found Irving had been improperly transporting oil. Reported Sarah Petz for the CBC:

The investigation found that Irving Oil failed to comply with applicable safety requirements by failing to properly classify the crude oil it transported by train, and that the shipping documents on board the trains were “erroneous,” the Public Prosecution Service of Canada said in the news release. 

The investigation also found that Irving Oil did not adequately train its employees in the transportation of dangerous goods. 

The offences occurred between November 2012 and July 2013, when close to 14,000 train cars transported crude oil to Saint John.

Environmental record

Bruce Livesey chronicled Irving’s poor environmental record for the National Observer in 2016:

Last year [that is, in 2015], for example, the Reuters news agency discovered that Irving Oil has logged at least 19 accidents classified by regulators as “environmental emergencies” at its existing facilities in eastern Canada since 2012, including three that drew warnings for delayed reporting. Irving Oil’s refinery and its storage terminals have had environmental emergencies ranging from petroleum spills as big as 3,000 barrels, to smaller incidents such as refinery emissions of sulfur dioxide exceeding permitted levels.

In 2013, New Brunswick’s Department of the Environment issued Irving a warning for taking more than a full day to report a storage tank leak of about 132 gallons of crude.

The bad news got worse this past weekend when Reuters reported that Irving Oil’s refinery spewed an excessive amount of ash-like catalyst into Saint John at least a dozen times since 2010. The concoction of sand and metal compounds, used in the production of gasoline, affects human health. Between August 2010 and December 2015, records show the refinery had repeated operational problems that triggered the releases of the substance, which sometimes left surrounding homes, vehicles and backyards coated by a gritty dust. Prolonged exposure has been linked by health experts to potential lung damage.

I keep coming back to Sean Tucker’s concern that “there’s a power imbalance between the power regulator and these large refining companies.” People who watch governments deal with large industries call this “regulatory capture” — instead of working for the public interest, the regulators in essence do the bidding of the companies they’re supposed to be regulating.

Something similar seems to be happening in New Brunswick media coverage of Monday’s explosion. “Oil refinery explosion was ‘Thanksgiving miracle,’ says newspaper owned by family that owns the refiner,” notes BoingBoing:

2. Stadium

Some $2.4 million in public money went to design this 25,000-seat stadium at Shannon Park, and a half a million dollars more to study building a 10-14,000 seat stadium at Shannon Park, and then another million dollars to study building a 20,000-seat stadium at Shannon Park. Now the city is being asked to look at another stadium proposal.

How is it that TSN’s “CFL Insider” Dave Naylor knows that Halifax council will soon be discussing a stadium, yet the city isn’t making such a discussion public?

Naylor says the meeting is on October 28, which is a Sunday, so he probably means the October 30 meeting.

Naylor tells us that the council discussion “may include recommendations for final steps to bring back a financial structure, a site recommendation, all those kind of things. And what the means is that eventually, if there’s positive momentum at the end of that meeting on the 28th, the group CFL Atlantic will be able to work with the city and try to finish of this deal with the province, and come back with a site and basically a total package with all the partners involved.”

Ah, so the province is involved.

You’ll recall that back in July, Premier Stephen McNeil said that he would oppose “general revenue” money being spent on the stadium, which the CBC wrongly interpreted in a headline as “Premier says taxpayers’ dollars won’t be used to build CFL stadium.”

But as I wrote at the time:

Seems to me, despite Stephen McNeil’s refusal to use provincial “general revenue” funds for the stadium, the entire proposal is dependent on the province — with some combination of using another pot of non-general revenue money, creating that special development zone, providing financing at government rates, giving or trading land, tax breaks, or something else I haven’t envisioned yet.

All or any of which is using taxpayer money.

Stadiums don’t come cheap. This will be sold as a “rightsize” stadium or some such bullshit, but we’re talking $300 million, easy, all costs in, and there’s no way the ownership group is going to pay more than a tiny sliver of that. The rest is on you and me.

In any event, Naylor says this will lead to a November “kick-off” for season ticket sales and a name-the-team contest.

“Halifax Roughriders” has a ring to it.

3. Pedestrians first

A city press release:

4. Africville

The city this morning issued a Request for Proposals (RFP) for the “Africville Interpretive Framework Project,” in particular an “Interpretative Enhancement Framework for a future Interpretative Plan” that will see the development of “3-5 interpretive elements with themes, content and conceptual design” at the historic site. The total budget for the project is $50,000.

All well and good, except the timeline for the project includes the “final approval of Halifax Explosion Marker. This location must be finalized by October 1, 2018 and will be developed in conjunction with the other 3-5 interpretive element locations.”

October 1 was a week ago…




Regional Watersheds Advisory Board (Wednesday, 5pm, HEMDCC Large Meeting Space, Alderney Gate) — here’s the agenda.


Appeals Standing Committee (Thursday, 10am, City Hall) — nothing terribly interesting on the agenda.

HPPAC Meeting  (Thursday, 6:30pm, St. Andrews United Church, 6036 Coburg Road, Halifax) — Dexel Developments wants to build a nine-storey building at 6324 & 6330 Quinpool Road. If their architectural drawings are to be believed, they’re going to do away with car traffic and cyclists will be pedalling the wrong direction on Quinpool Road.

Port Wallace PPC Meeting (Thursday, 6:30pm, HEMDCC Large Meeting Room, Alderney Gate)



Legislature sits (Wednesday, 1pm, Province House)


Legislature sits (Thursday, 1pm, Province House)

On campus



Determining the 14-3-3zeta interactome to understand adipocyte development(Wednesday, 4pm, Theatre A, Tupper Medical Building) — Gareth Lim from the Université de Montréal will speak. Bring your own adipocyte.


Gord Downie & Chanie Wenjack Legacy Space Launch (Thursday, 9:30am, Killam Memorial Library) — From the event listing:

The Legacy Spaces program is an opportunity for corporations, government, organizations and educational institutions to play an important role in their communities.

9th Annual Mawio’mi (Thursday, 11am, Studley Quad) — “a celebration of culture, diversity and heritage, with a traditional feast, vendors, drummers and dancers.​​” Rain location: McInnes Room, SUB.

Katherine Chi, Piano Masterclass (Thursday, 11:30am, Room 406, Dalhousie Arts Centre)

Mini Medical School (Thursday, 7pm, Theatre B, Tupper Link Building) — ​Mohsin Rashid will speak on the “Role of Endoscopy in Gastrointestinal Diseases”, followed at 8:15 by Thomas Murray talking about “Multiple Sclerosis”.

There’s Something in the Water: Environmental Racism in Indigenous and Black Communities (Thursday, 7pm, Ondaatje Hall, Marion McCain Building) — Ingrid Waldron will speak.

Saint Mary’s


Alumni Council Annual General Meeting (Wednesday, 4:30pm, Unilever Lounge, Sobey Building) — bring your chequebook.

SMU After Hours: Women in Entrepreneurship (Wednesday, 5:30pm, CLARI, Atrium Building) — a panel discussion featuring Shelley Simpson, Keisha Turner, and Deeksha Bhaskar. Register here.


Iced: The Story of Organized Crime in Canada (Thursday, 8am, Unilever Lounge, Sobey Building) — Stephen Schneider will speak. Ten bucks, but you get soggy eggs.

Mi’kmaq Flag Raising (Thursday, 12pm, in front of McNally Main)



Daniel Cressy (Wednesday, 12pm, Senior Common Room, Arts and Administration Building) —  science journalist and Deputy Editor of Research Fortnight, London, will speak.

 The Electric Composer: music, AI and being human (Wednesday, 7pm, Alumni Hall) — Sageev Oore will speak.


Science and the Public Sphere: What is Science Literacy and What is Its Public Value? (Thursday, 7:30pm, Alumni Hall) — a panel discussion with Daniel Cressey, Linda Pannozzo, Shelley Denny, Karen Traversy, and Ian Stewart. From the event listing:

The natural and social sciences are key to dealing with today’s many environmental, health, and social issues. However, many claim that the sciences are not being adequately used to address these issues. Why? Is this a problem of scientific literacy? Who should be responsible for generating, assessing, and communicating scientific information? What degree of scientific literacy is necessary for public participation in democratic governance? How can we encourage a broader notion of literacy that includes other forms of knowledge, e.g. local and indigenous knowledge, amongst both scientific experts and the general public? To address these timely questions, members of this panel will offer their insights drawn from their experience in science journalism, authorship, environmental management, and active public engagement.​

More info here.

In the harbour

06:00: ZIM Monaco, container ship, arrives at Pier 42 from Algeciras, Spain
07:00: Royal Princess, cruise ship with up to 4,272 passengers, arrives at Pier 22 from Sydney (11-day cruise from Quebec City to New York) (Portland)
10:30: Porgy, car carrier, moves from Autoport to Pier 31
15:30: Porgy sails for sea
15:30: Royal Princess sails for Portland
16:00: Algoma Integrity, bulker, sails from National Gypsum for sea
16:30: ZIM Monaco sails for New York


I’ll be on the Sheldon MacLeod Show, News 95.7, at 2pm.

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  1. Telegraph Journal refers to Refinery Explosion as Thanksgiving Miracle….. this is what happens when the refinery and the media are owned by the same family. That should be reason enough for politicians to distance themselves and let government do its freaking job.

  2. A worry I have about LPI:

    My experience with drivers is that they often use a red light to get ahead of crossing pedestrians. That is, the light is about to change, drivers know if they wait for the green light to turn right there will be pedestrians in their way, so they roll through the red without stopping and turn right. By the time the light turns green, the car is already in the intersection and pedestrians have to wait for them to go through, even if they have a walk signal and right of way.

    My concern is that pedestrians with an early walk signal will end up in crosswalks with drivers who are accustomed to beating out pedestrians by rolling right through reds, and someone will get hit.

    Maybe the evidence on LPI says otherwise and this isn’t an issue, but it was the first thing I thought of when I read “early pedestrian walk signal.”

    1. Your comment ties in nicely with Mr May’s above. Without buy-in on the enforcement side, the scenario you describe may well come to pass. Credit where it’s due, however: in my experience, HRP will respond to complaints.

      I complained about speeding traffic on Alderney Drive a couple years ago and HRP responded with sporadic speed traps over the subsequent 2-3 weeks.

      Similarly, I complained about drivers blasting through the red light atop the ramp to the MacDonald Bridge (Dartmouth-bound) once the pedestrian walkway re-opened after the “Big Lift” and HRP responded with consistent monitoring of the intersection in question over the following two weeks.

      So with the LPI plan commencing tomorrow at the selected 6 intersections, I guess I’ll have my phone at the ready?

  3. Some angst out there over the province refusing to allow municipalities to reduce speed limits to 30 kmph.
    Even if HRM introduced such a speed limit there is no evidence that it would be enforced, not to mention the increased pollution from the lower speed limit.
    Police do not enforce the speed limit in the school zone at Bicentennial & Dartmouth High; police don’t enforce the no parking zone at Bicentennial, police don’t enforce the ban on parking at stop signs at Thistle & Pine where parents wait to pick up their offspring, police don’t ticket cyclists who don’t have a bell, police don’t ticket drivers who disobey the no left turn 4-6 pm rule on Dahlia and Tulip…..
    The Halifax police now operate on the ‘go along to get along’ principle because issuing tickets for minor infractions is no longer a guaranteed revenue stream and ticketing just ends up annoying ordinary citizens.
    If police wanted guaranteed revenue a trip to Dalhousie bicycle racks would be very productive…. 2 weeks ago I went to the talk about FOI and then I walked to the bus stop, passing by several bike racks where only 15 of 48 bikes had a bell.

    1. While a bell is supposed to be required on a bike, it is really only useful when riding on sidewalks or overtaking other cyclists. It is not audible from within a car. Since cyclists are not supposed to use sidewalks and a simple shout of ‘on the left’ is enough to overtake cyclists, I can’t see bells remaining a useful tool. It’s not 1953 anymore.

      1. I spoke at Law Amendments yesterday detailing the serious problems with cyclists using the pathways in Dartmouth Common. The majority have no bell. and give no warning when passing pedestrians such as myself. I have almost been hit at least 6 times. Other people including mothers with pre-school children have had similar experiences.
        On the Dartmouth Common pedestrians have priority and the priority is spelled out in the HRM charter. Section 66 :
        (6) The Municipality’s activities, including planning, development
        and activities pursuant to this Section, on the Dartmouth Common and any
        activities permitted by the Municipality on the Dartmouth Common must be consistent
        with the following objectives:
        (a) public access: access for all;
        (b) connectivity: visual and physical continuity between
        open spaces and built elements;
        (c) pedestrian priority: safe and comfortable pedestrian

        Cyclists need to understand the law, it’s 2018

        1. Your example appears to be a mixed use trail. At the entrances to such trails a sign usually details how to use such a trail and in my experience pedestrians rarely respect the rules themselves. They should proceed on the right and not wander around. Should the police be fining them for not using the trail correctly? I think not. More education would go a long way. I’ve never seen a tv or internet ad or heard a radio announcement about how mixed use paths should be used. Cyclists should not be on sidewalks but fining people for not having bells is silly, as silly as fining pedestrians for failing to push the button to cross the street.