Winnipeggers who recall a massive pipeline rupture 20 years ago in St. Norbert warned Thursday that using the same pipeline to move bitumen could prove disastrous.
Louise May, of Aurora Farms, along with advocates from the St. Norbert Arts Centre, the Falcon Trails Resort and scientist Dennis LeNeveu held a community meeting at the arts centred Thursday evening, ahead of presentations they will give the National Energy Board panel tasked with reviewing the proposed Energy East pipeline.
"We felt we needed to let the community know what we've learned leading up to that," May said.
May and her fellow advocates say the existing pipeline carries natural gas but Calgary-based TransCanada Corp. wants to move bitumen through it under the massive pipeline project designed to transport Alberta bitumen and crude oil to tide water.
TransCanada runs regular helicopter sweeps to monitor the pipeline but local residents worry without ground crews, a leak could easily go undetected.
The Energy East pipeline is a 4,500-kilometre pipeline proposed to carry 1.1 million barrels of bitumen and crude oil a day from Alberta to refineries in eastern Canada.
Across Canada, doubts have been growing over the fate of the pipeline as well as the federal regulatory process reviewing it.
For months, indigenous and environmental opposition has been mounting over the pipeline proposal.
Then, in September the three members of the National Energy Board panel reviewing the project resigned after it was revealed two of them had met a year earlier with former Quebec premier Jean Charest, a proponent of the TransCanada project.
The federal energy regulator said at the time it still planned to meet its schedule to have a decision on the $15.7-billion project by March 18, 2018.
But a month later, a new panel has yet to be named and the pipeline opponents in St. Norbert expect a delay of several months before they can deliver a local history lesson to the federal energy regulator.
When they do, they intend to draw attention to a stretch of the pipeline that runs under the La Salle River at St. Norbert, the site of a horrendous blast two decades ago.
"If you lived through that explosion, and you find out It could happen again, that's a terrifying feeling," May said. "We felt we needed to let people know and move quickly to demand action.
"We don't want to wait months to speak out."
On April 15, 1996, the TransCanada pipeline burst open, throwing up a huge fireball, scorching trees and hydro poles, destroying one St. Norbert-area home and leaving another heavily damaged.
Local residents still remember the searing heat from the blast.
Investigators at the time reported finding a five-metre hole in the pipeline afterward.
Free Press coverage the day after noted the explosion occurred at the end of Minerva Avenue, a gravel lane off Pembina Highway on the outskirts of St. Norbert, near where the natural gas pipeline burst under the La Salle River.
"Flames and searing heat from the explosion were carried more than 300 metres by the wind, igniting the shingle of a two-storey house, gutting it," the Free Press's front page story reported.
A scientist, the owner of the home, was visiting his wife in the hospital that day, and by some miracle the only living thing being in the home, a house cat, managed to escape. The couple moved out of the area afterward. No one was injured.
Minerva Avenue, then a short street only one block long with four homes, was never rebuilt.
Area residents say one property is still occupied but the homeowner has blocked off access with No Trespassing signs and put the property up for sale.
The rupture was blamed on riverbank instability and scientific instruments used to measure natural movement show instability is still a concern at the site, May's group said.
Moreover, a plume of hydrogen sulphide, a byproduct of a bitumen explosion, would be released and while it would likely disperse quickly, the gas is deadly.
"At Lac Megantic, it killed 47 people. It's rare. It depends on which way the wind is blowing," LeNeveu said referring to the July 2013 disaster in Quebec when a train carrying crude oil derailed and exploded.
What concerns area residents now is not just a decades-old pipeline in a riverbank known for a measurable degree of instability.
There's also a risk posed by proposed development in the area that could accelerate the impact of a pipeline explosion.
Part of the route for Manitoba Hydro’s proposed $1-billion Minnesota transmission line runs a block away from Minerva Avenue, said one resident who lives near the former blast site.
Rail and road traffic are also greater now than 20 years ago.
"With the rail lines and the traffic on Highway 59 and the city pushing through the transmission line? Think about it. It’s a recipe for disaster," one St. Norbert resident said.