Diluted bitumen unsafe in any waters and should be banned

Bitumen, the product being extracted from the Northern Alberta and Saskatchewan Tar Sands operations, is similar to bunker crude. It also must be heated to be pumped. To make it flow in a pipeline a thinning agent is added.

The faulty logic of Trudeau’s Kinder Morgan Pipeline approval

by Merv Richie

For many years now the British Columbian population has endured news, commentaries and protests regarding the prospects of petroleum products being piped across the province and shipped by tankers from West Coast ports. Missing from the debate, including the recent decisions by the government of Justin Trudeau, is the various types of product and the present day dangers the coast faces now with all vessels.

The Nathan E. Stewart, which ran aground and sank at Bella Bella on October 13, 2016, highlights these dangers. Almost every vessel, from small fish boats to dry goods freighters has all their fuel uncontained. The MV Rena, which struck a reef and broke up spoiling the beaches of New Zealand five years ago, was a dry goods freighter. Everyday there are approximately 15 similar freighters moored in English Bay, each with an average of 3 million litres of Bunker Crude in their keel holds. Only 3/4 of an inch of steel separates the bunker fuel from the open ocean and our waterfront. A full 45 million litres or as much as the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill in Alaska. All of this bunker crude and all fuel in almost all vessels waits to be spilled. The Nathan E. Stewart is our wake up call to demand fuel containment in all BC waters.

Most common of the refined petroleum products are diesel and gasoline. Besides the dozens of other products refined from crude oil the remaining sludge, a dirty sulphurous residue, is bunker crude. This is stored as ballast in the ‘keel hold’ at the bottom of all freighters. The consistency is such that it cannot be pumped without heating. When cold, it is like tar; in fact it is exactly the same substance we mix with gravel to pave our road surfaces. All freighters run on this filth after they leave populated harbours.

Bitumen, the product being extracted from the Northern Alberta and Saskatchewan Tar Sands operations, is similar to bunker crude. It also must be heated to be pumped. To make it flow in a pipeline a thinning agent is added. This is where the term Dil-Bit comes from; diluted bitumen. The thick bitumen is diluted with a product called ‘condensate’. Condensate is a very toxic and explosive gas. It is a by-product of wet natural gas wells. Commonly called ‘white gas’ it contains hydrogen sulfide, methanol, ethynol, cyclohexane, naphthene, benzene, toluene, xylenes and ethyl benzene. This product is being imported into Canada by ship and by rail from Kitimat to Alberta for the present pipeline system.

Therefore, we have a variety of substances to consider along with the manner in which these substances are transported. Each has their own hazards and management issues.

When the Lac Megantic disaster happened, the tragic explosion of a runaway train carrying oil, the product was not just oil. It was a mixture of oil and gas. Most adults understand one cannot light a litre of 10W30 engine oil. But if one was to add a bit of gasoline to the bottle we would essentially be creating a bomb. One wouldn’t want to stand too close when lighting it. That is exactly what was on the rails at Lac Megantic: bombs, crude oil mixed with gas.

What happened at Kalamazoo Michigan from the ‘Dil-Bit’ was a different result from the same mixture. When the Enbridge pipeline burst, a spray of pressurized ‘Dil-Bit’ hit the atmosphere. The local population suffered the effects of the toxicity. The suddenly aerosolized poisons of the condensate created neurotoxins.

Dil-Bit therefore is nothing short of an extremely explosive toxic nerve gas bomb.

Raw crude oil, without any added or present gases is difficult to transport by pipelines; for bitumen it is impossible. The added difficulty for Canadian bitumen is the corrosive sediment remaining after initial processing. The life of the pipelines is substantially reduced due to increased wear, much like sandpaper, the bitumen presents.

Transporting bitumen by rail car is not dangerous as long as it is not diluted or heated; shipped cold and raw. Bunker crude is shipped this way today. A derailment would see the product simply stay where it spilled even if a rail car broke open. A fully refined product, Dil-Bit or condensate would pollute flowing freely, vaporize or even ignite.

All these products are loaded onto vessels plying our waters completely un-contained. The rail cars or pipelines fill storage tanks next to the waters or are emptied directly into the vessel at port. This in itself presents a variety of potential for spillage. At Kitimat the condensate is reportedly spilled regularly. Tank farms are known to spring leaks including the one Kinder Morgan operates at Burrard Inlet, and spills occur while filling vessels. In fact most pleasure craft and fishing vessels are filled until the overflow spills out into the waters. All of these hazards and spillages could be resolved by a demand for containment by our governments.

In 1965 Ralph Nader wrote Unsafe at Any Speed. It was a critical examination of the Automobile Industry’s refusal to consider adding safety features such as seat belts. The industry, Nader detailed, sacrificed the lives of thousands by their combined refusal to address the very real and obvious hazards. A clear analogy is obvious here. The automobile industry complained loudly against regulation of their product, arguing the extra costs would bankrupt them or make their product unaffordable. Now safety is one of the auto industries greatest advertising features, adding airbags and protection devices wherever possible.

The petroleum and marine shipping industry could achieve the same result. Just as was required for the auto industry, regulations and changes will need to be enforced.

All vessels must be required to be retrofitted to have their fuel stored in removable containers. In the case of freighters, the rail cars presently delivering bunker crude could be redesigned to be detached from the rail bed, just as containers are today. These could then be lowered into refabricated holds on the vessel. A Panamax freighter would likely require 30 of these removable tank cars. Each could be connected to the fuel system by an electrically operated solenoid valve such that in the case of loss of power or impending disaster, the valves would secure the fuel. The very same fuel containment system must be made mandatory on all vessels. Sealed, removable fuel modules.

Just like a family going out for boating trip on a boat with a small outboard motor, the fuel is generally carried on board in a specially designed fuel tank. The hose is connected and with a couple squeezes on the fuel ball, the motor is ready to start.

Presently most vessels are unsafe in any waters. While there is justifiable outrage at Prime Minister Trudeau’s approval of the Kinder Morgan expansion plans, there is the opportunity to address the dangers present today.

If we demanded an immediate change to all fuel containment systems having bunker fuel and crude or bitumen transported cold and raw in detachable rail cars, sealed from the point of production to the destination, loaded in the same manner as ‘Sea Can’ containers are today, the dangers would be greatly reduced. An added benefit would be the reduced need for importing condensate to make toxic nerve gas and bombs. Dil-Bit needs to be completely banned. j

The Nathan E. Stewart was a wakeup call, as is the still-leaking Queen of the North; and the MV Bovec balancing on a reef off Prince Rupert in 2000 is similar to the MV Rena in New Zealand. British Columbia is just lucky to not have a disaster on its shores. And this is long before more tanker traffic arrives.

3 thoughts on “Diluted bitumen unsafe in any waters and should be banned”

  1. Dear Ms. Weir

    As a chemical engineer with over 50 years in the energy sector in several countries, I suggest this article is a work of fiction, and a great disservice to your readers.
    Let me give you a few examples:

    • No marine vessel has their fuel “uncontained”. It is in tanks of steel, aluminum, plastic, etc. In the tankers for crude oil in Canada, the tanks are also protected by the ship’s double hulls.
    For the reason above the author is also wrong to say that only ¾ inch of steel protects the fuel tanks in cargo ships in our harbour – he apparently forgets the hulls. Some fuel can leak through vents if the vessel sinks.
    • “Condensate” is not a “gas”, but a liquid at ambient conditions. According to Crude Monitor (Google it), it has about four volume percent benzene, toluene, xylene and ethylbenzene total, or about a tenth of that in gasoline.
    • Condensate is not “explosive” – but it is flammable as are most light hydrocarbons. Like natural gas or gasoline, it can’t explode unless contained, and only if oxygen and an ignition source are present.
    • Lake Megantic cargo was not a mixture of oil and gas, but the Bakken crude oil was more volatile than specified on the cargo data sheets. There is always some gaseous phase above any light product, but that is normal – it is not added.
    • To call dilbit “an extremely explosive toxic nerve gas bomb” is alarmist hyperbole. It has been pipelined for over 40 years with no deaths to my knowledge. Immensely more dangerous are the gasoline and propane tankers you see unloading at local service stations.
    • Conventional “raw crude oil” is not difficult to pipeline without “added or present gases”. Gases are not used as diluents for safety and logistical reasons. Only liquid diluents are – condensate, naphtha, or synthetic crude.
    • The toxicity effects on people at Kalamazoo were temporary and were things like nausea, headache, etc. Government reports describe this. Not one government report that I have seen refers to neurotoxins.
    • The myth that dilbit corrodes or erodes pipelines more than, say, conventional crude, has long been debunked – e.g. see US EPA report on Keystone pipeline. Dilbit has to meet the same spec. as other products re basic sediment and water in it for pipelining.
    • If condensate were “spilled regularly” at Kitimat, we would hear about it. We don’t.
    • I have lived on Burrard Inlet across from the KMC loading dock for over 20 years. Other than the pipeline rupture caused by a Burnaby contractor hitting the KMC line, I have NEVER seen evidence of a leak (as claimed by your author) at the KMC terminal on the inlet.
    • The idea of “removable containers” in tankers as a means to carry fuel is too ridiculous to contemplate. We consumers or taxpayers, at the end of the day, would bear the cost and risk of this ridiculous proposal proposal.

    In my opinion, publishing articles like this totally undermines the credibility of your magazine.

    You are welcome to publish this.


    John Hunter, P. Eng.
    President & CEO
    J. Hunter & Associates Ltd.
    338 Roche Point Drive
    North Vancouver, BC, CANADA V7G 2M2

    Office Phone: 604-929-4436
    Cell Phone: 778-928-4436

  2. The answer Leslie, is because the info is an alarmist crock in my opinion.

    From a guy with over 50 years in the energy biz.

  3. Why hasn’t this information been made public earlier? Trudeau’s handling of the decision to approve the KM pipeline has been irresponsible. Canadians need to have an in depth examination of all possible dangers made public. We have a right to know and to decide. When tankers are loading up in Burrard inlet, across from the Tsleil-Watuth people’s land and homes, they have a right to know what is in the hold. We all do. The volatility of these toxic and highly combustible substances make them too dangerous to transport by pipeline, rail and ship.

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