A potential problem, a cautious approach

Stories from our Enbridge Safety Report to the Community (Part 1)

Jeremy Ward’s phone rang at 10:37 p.m. on Friday, April 17, 2015. One of Enbridge’s pipeline inspection providers, Pure Technologies, was calling.

That afternoon, a local Enbridge pipeline maintenance crew and a team from the inspection company had retrieved a SmartBall tool from Line 21, which carries crude oil from Norman Wells in Canada’s Northwest Territories to Alberta. The tool had traveled inside a segment of the pipeline over the previous number of days, its acoustic sensors listening for any telltale sounds that could indicate a tiny leak.

“It’s never going to be good news when you get a late-night call after you’ve pulled an inspection tool,” says Ward, a member of the team that manages and monitors the health of Enbridge’s pipelines. “Whenever we retrieve a tool, the vendor takes a quick look at the data, to see if there’s anything that jumps out as needing urgent attention. That’s why they were calling. They had found what looked like signs of a leak.”

Within minutes, Ward had informed his boss and then contacted Enbridge’s Control Center Operations in Edmonton, and by 10:47 p.m., 10 minutes after the call from Pure Technologies, Enbridge had shut the line down.

What followed over the next few days was a race against time involving nearly two dozen people to determine the exact location where the SmartBall had heard something, and to get a team on the ground to investigate.

By Saturday morning, the team had identified a two-kilometer (1.2 mile) stretch of pipeline about 415 km (260 miles) south of Norman Wells. A crew flew to the location and did an aerial and ground search. They found no signs of a leak.

“At the same time, other members of the team were back at the office, reviewing data from previous in-line inspections, including from a different tool we’d pulled from the line on the same day, to see if they could find any other evidence to help us refine our search,” says Ward.

Over the weekend, based on more detailed analysis of the data, the ground team searched six specific nearby locations along the pipeline. Still no evidence of a leak.

“While this was all happening, the controllers in Edmonton were watching the pressure in the pipeline,” Ward says. “It held steady, which is a good sign that there are no leaks and the system is intact.”

Even with this positive news, Enbridge proceeded with caution. For three more days, as the investigation progressed, we kept the line shut down. On Wednesday, April 22, Enbridge safely restarted Line 21.

“At the end of it, after we’d gone through all the procedures, it turned out to be a false alarm,” Ward says. “Some people might look at that and say it was a waste of effort, but I don’t think so. That’s our approach to safety. We weren’t going to restart that line until we’d run down every lead – and considered every possibility – to confirm it was safe.”

(This story was originally published in our 2014 Enbridge Safety Report to the Community, released online in late September 2015 and distributed to thousands of our neighbors near Enbridge’s pipelines and facilities across the U.S. and Canada.)