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CNRL fined for fatal collapse, must pay to develop new standards

Russell Hixson
CNRL fined for fatal collapse, must pay to develop new standards

The Association of Professional Engineers and Geoscientists of Alberta (APEGA) announced the results of its formal investigation regarding permit holder Canadian Natural Resources Limited (CNRL) for a 2007 incident at its Horizon Oil Sands project site that killed two people and injured five others.

APEGA’s investigation considered whether CNRL, as a permit holder with responsibility for approving designs, design changes and construction plans as well as meeting building and safety code requirements, did so in a skilled or professional manner.

According to the association, CNRL voluntarily admitted to unprofessional conduct in its engagement and supervision of contractors performing engineering work and has agreed to sanctions.

CNRL was fined $10,000, the maximum allowed under APEGA’s current legislation, and will work with APEGA to develop a new practice standard on outsourcing engineering and geoscience work.

APEGA’s investigation looked into the events of April 24, 2007, where workers were building a 20-metre high oil tank at the Horizon oilsands project north of Fort McMurray, Alta., when cables holding up a roof support structure snapped due to high winds.

Information in the Government of Alberta Occupational Health & Safety (OH&S) investigation report on the incident, released in February 2016, helped APEGA determine that it remained in the public interest to proceed with an investigation despite the considerable amount of time since the event.

According to the OH&S report, a supporting cable snapped after high winds and kinks weakened it.

Nearby workers told investigators they heard loud bangs and pops when the roof collapsed.

Two workers were killed by falling steel — an electrical consultant was pronounced dead at the scene and a scaffolder, who was on the tank floor, died while being transported to a Fort McMurray hospital. Two other workers received serious injuries and three more workers received minor injuries.

Construction on the storage tanks was behind schedule, so Canadian subsidiary of Sinopec Shanghai Engineering Company (SSEC) and CNRL decided to build the walls and roofs at the same time.

According to the report, the site’s confined space monitor was poorly trained and was not competent to do their duties like raising an alarm or launching an effective rescue. There wasn’t access to phones or radios and there was no communication with workers inside the tank.

The monitor didn’t even understand what his role was or what was required of him during an emergency, the report notes. It also criticized SSEC for failing to have escape plans in its emergency procedures.

Investigators found SSEC and CNRL did not check if construction drawings had been signed and stamped by an engineer and workers were only given verbal instructions for how to build the tank roof.

Sinopec, a Chinese oil and gas company, was ordered to pay a $1.5 million fine in 2013 — the largest ever in Alberta. SSEC Canada pleaded guilty to three charges in connection with the incident. Originally, SSEC and CNRL faced a total of more than 50 charges, but nearly all were dropped or stayed.

The new standard on outsourcing engineering and geoscience work will be approved and established by APEGA council and enforced by its investigative and discipline committees as well as its practice review board. The new standard will set clear expectations relative to the responsibilities of APEGA permit holders and members when outsourcing engineering services. The association noted that clear expectations are the first critical step in enabling members to comply.

CNRL will support the costs of the standard development to a maximum of $150,000, including broad consultation with APEGA members to clarify current outsourcing issues and concerns.

"This is the most significant sanction APEGA has applied to a permit holder," said registrar Carol Moen, P.Eng. "An updated practice standard will clarify the professional obligations of all our members and permit holders when outsourcing engineering or geoscience services. Clarity of these responsibilities in conjunction with APEGA’s enforcement will minimize the likelihood of events like the CNRL tank incident from happening again in Alberta."

Gil McGowan, Alberta Federation of Labour president, is less optimistic. He said the penalty is an indictment of the company but also of the government for failing to make meaningful changes.

"They essentially allowed Chinese companies to import both Third World construction practices and Third World workplace standards and the results were fatalities and injuries," he said. "The scary thing is that nothing has changed at any level of government to stop this kind of thing from happening again."

McGowan said the unique nature of the worksite with essentially all Chinese workers flown in by the foreign contractor should have been a big red flag for government to keep a close watch.

"That didn’t happen, the government didn’t show up until the tanks collapsed," McGowan said.

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