Some east Saint John butane leak evacuees return home after EMO gives all-clear

Some east Saint John residents returned to their homes on Friday afternoon for the first time since a ruptured Irving Oil pipeline carrying liquid butane forced the evacuation of the area on Monday morning.

4 nights after rupture in Irving Oil pipeline discovered, air quality tests detect zero butane

The evacuees who were allowed to go home Friday for the first time in four nights were excited. (CBC)

Some east Saint John residents returned to their homes on Friday afternoon for the first time since a ruptured Irving Oil pipeline carrying liquid butane forced the evacuation of the area on Monday morning.

The New Brunswick Energy and Utilities Board has ordered Irving Oil to install an "enhanced [gas] leak detection and monitoring system" at its Saint John East Terminal on Bayside Drive before the butane line resumes operations.

And the Saint John Emergency Measures Organization has pledged to improve its communications plan after facing criticism about the way it handled providing information to the public on the hazardous materials incident.

Butane is a colourless, highly flammable gas that can cause nausea, asphyxia and arrhythmia if inhaled.

The leak in the four-inch-diameter pipeline that runs to the Irving Oil refinery was discovered Monday around 10:30 a.m. when workers were making checks in preparation for doing maintenance work.

It's still unclear when the above-ground pipeline broke, or how much butane escaped in liquid or vapour form.

Evacuee Kelsey Fillmore, who lives on River Avenue, told CBC News earlier this week she noticed an odour for about three days prior to the leak being discovered.

Firefighters and police officers accompanied residents back into their homes Friday to conduct safety inspections, including additional air quality tests. (CBC)

The EMO started contacting evacuees from Spruce Avenue, First Street East and Second Street East at mid-afternoon Friday to notify them it was safe to go home.

"Multiple air quality tests conducted overnight and throughout the day today have indicated that these areas are safe and clear, with 12 consecutive hours of a zero LEL [lower explosive limit] level recorded," the EMO said in an emailed statement around 3:45 p.m.

LEL is the minimum concentration of a particular gas or vapour that is capable of combusting in the presence of an ignition source, such as a spark, heat or flame.

The maximum concentration of a gas or vapour that will burn in the air is known as the upper explosive limit, UEL.

Concentrations below the LEL are too lean to burn and concentrations above the UEL are too rich to burn.

​Remediation of the site — Irving's Saint John East Terminal on Bayside — is complete, the EMO said.

The broken pipeline has been purged of residual vapours and the liquid butane on the ground has been removed.

Some streets still closed

River Avenue and Pleasant City Street, which are closer to the broken pipeline, remain closed until air quality tests over a 12-hour period come back negative, said the EMO.

Power in those homes has been turned off since Monday.

Heather Follett, who lives on River Avenue, said she was told it could be Sunday or Monday before her family if allowed to go home.

They said butane was detected in a storm sewer close to Courtenay Bay, but they're hoping the heavy rain anticipated Friday night will help wash it away, said Follett.

Bayside Drive, a major artery on the city's east side, also remains closed from the Courtenay Bay Causeway to Red Head Road until further notice. Officials said they might reopen one lane in each direction before the road is fully reopened.

One of the first evacuees allowed to go back home, a woman on Second Street East, told CBC News she was excited.

Her neighbour offered only a thumbs up.

Emergency responders are accompanying the residents into their homes to confirm the air quality and to ensure the properties sustained no damage, said the EMO.

40-year-old pipe

The EUB, which regulates pipelines that carry hazardous materials in the province, has conducted a preliminary investigation of the leak, said spokesman David Young.

It suggests the approximately five-centimetre crack the pipeline sustained is related to the recent extreme cold weather, said Young.

Pipelines are designed to allow for unconstrained expansion and contraction with temperature changes. But ice buildup in one area appears to have constrained the pipe's movement, he said.

Mark Sherman, vice-president and chief operation officer of Irving Oil, provided an update Friday morning about the butane leak. (Connell Smith/CBC)

The pipe was installed around 1977 but was re-rated within "the last few years," as required, Irving Oil's vice-president and chief operating officer Mark Sherman told reporters during a media briefing Friday morning.

"So we're very confident with the inspections that have been done that the pipe in general has been, you know, it's certainly not a bad actor, it's been in good shape," he said.

"So that's why the investigation is very important to find out what happened."

The Department of Environment is also investigating.

Repairs will be inspected by EUB

The EUB has directed Irving Oil to "demonstrate that the pipeline can be operated safely" before permission will be granted to resume operation, said Young.

"This will include the installation of an enhanced leak detection and monitoring system," he said.

The EUB has directed Irving Oil to "demonstrate that the pipeline can be operated safely" before permission will be granted to resume operation, said Young.

"This will include the installation of an enhanced leak detection and monitoring system," he said.

Sherman said "it wouldn't be typical to have gas detection in the area."

"It's a long pipeline, it's quite an area to cover. It's certainly not part of the regulation."

The EUB does require Irving employees to walk the line monthly, but the company does so on a weekly basis "as a minimum," Sherman said.

Given the proximity to the homes there, we're going to look at what we think is adequate to safeguard the public.- Mark Sherman, Irving Oil

Young said "the board's aware there was supposed to be a monitoring program" for the pipeline. 

"But what that program is and what happened is part of the investigation."

There are complex levels of requirements that depend on certain conditions, he explained.

For now, EUB officials are focusing on what Irving Oil must do before it can operate the pipeline again, said Young. They'll deal with whatever was in place before, afterward, he said.

Irving must also raise a section of the pipeline so it won't be susceptible to constraints due to icy conditions, he added.

The board's pipeline safety staff will oversee and inspect the repairs, which could be complete within "a few days," said Young.

"The investigation into the incident will continue to determine if any further changes to the company's licence to operate the pipeline are required," he said.

Once repairs are complete, Sherman said a temporary gas detection system will be installed.

A permanent detection system will have to be designed and ordered, he said.

"Any time you have an incident, there's lessons learned as points of reflection," Sherman said. "And given the proximity to the homes there, we're going to look at what we think is adequate to safeguard the public." 

'We'll work to be better next time'

Saint John EMO director Kevin Clifford, who is also the fire chief, said communications during the butane leak response this week will be reviewed to look for ways to improve getting information to the public. (CBC)

Kevin Clifford, the Saint John fire chief and director of EMO, acknowledged Friday that communication with the public about the leak fell short.

"We've got some resource challenges this week, but that should never be an excuse," Clifford said during the media briefing — only the second such public briefing held by EMO in the five days since the leak was detected.

News releases were issued once or twice a day at most.

"I do appreciate that the media needed better updates at times and we'll take some lessons from this, but at the same time I do appreciate your patience," he said.

"We'll work to be better next time."

Officials have been providing regular updates to the approximately 65 area residents who were forced from their homes Monday, media representatives have not been allowed to attend.

Clifford commended the evacuees for their resilience, patience and understanding.

"It's not lost on us that this has been a significant impact for them," he said.

"We're moving to bring this thing to a conclusion."

Bracing for 'major deluge'

Saint John emergency crews have been dealing with the butane leak on the city's east side since Monday at around 11 a.m. (CBC)

EMO crews are bracing for another emergency, given the "major deluge" in the forecast for Friday and Saturday.

​Environment Canada has issued a freezing rain warning and a rainfall warning across New Brunswick.

The Fundy Coast could get more than 100 millimetres of rain. The rest of southern New Brunswick could see between 50 mm and 80 mm. In the northern part of the province, rainfall amounts will be about 25 mm. 

The north and northwestern parts of the province are also under a flash freeze warning.

A second EMO command post has been set up on Bayside Drive as crews deal with the aftermath of the leak and the weather.

J.D. Irving operations resume

The Irving Paper mill on Bayside Drive resumed operations on Friday, following an evacuation and shutdown Wednesday night. (CBC)

Meanwhile, the Irving Paper mill, Irving Wallboard plant and J.D. Irving offices on Bayside Drive were expected to resume full operations Friday after overnight air quality tests in the buildings and water and sewer lines found no traces of butane, spokeswoman Mary Keith said in an emailed statement.

The operations were evacuated and shut down Wednesday around 8:30 p.m. after traces of butane gas were detected in the air at Irving Paper.

The facility does not use butane, but officials found no evidence of a connection with the Irving Oil leak, said Clifford.

"Indeed it could have been unrelated," he said.

A mill employee, who was experiencing "headache symptoms" after her shift, went to the Saint John Regional Hospital at around 9:30 p.m., Keith confirmed.

The female employee underwent "tests" and was subsequently released," said Keith, without elaborating.

With files from Connell Smith

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