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Pipeline whistleblower receives national award

Evan Vokes, the former TransCanada employee and engineer that helped The Tyee and the CBC investigate rising pipeline incidents and rule breaking in the industry, will be the recipient of major whistleblower award in Ottawa today.

The 47-year-old Ontario-born Vokes will receive the 2013 Golden Whistle Blower Award sponsored by Canadians for Accountability and presented by an Ottawa-based group called Peace Order and Good Government (POGG).

Vokes told The Tyee that he didn't see himself so much as a "whistleblower," but as an engineer trying to comply with his profession's mandatory code of ethics.

"To me the most outstanding issue is the practice of engineering during the construction of pipelines," says Vokes.

"Under deadlines of cost and schedule for pipelines, quality concerns are reduced from compliance with the code to what risks can the company get away with."

Canada's energy industry wants to double the nation's pipeline capacity over the next decade to either export bitumen or import light oil to dilute the sludge-like heavy oil.

But three proposals by TransCanada, Kinder Morgan and Enbridge have encountered a tide of popular resistance from First Nations, environmentalists, labour unions, scientists and economists critical of the pace and scale of development in the tar sands.

Vokes, a materials engineer, worked for TransCanada pipelines for five years (2007-2012) on projects in Canada, the U.S. and Mexico. (Calgary-based TransCanada is the proponent of the controversial Keystone XL pipeline that would transport bitumen to U.S. Gulf Coast refineries.)

His specific duties included metallurgy and welding. He also specialized in an important code compliance process known as non-destructive examination under National Energy Board legislation.

Vokes told his superiors that the company was not complying to NEB regulation or supporting codes when inspecting welds during pipeline and facility construction.

Shortly afterwards, the engineer took stress leave. He later lodged a complaint with regulators in Canada and the U.S., the prime minister's office and the Association of Professional Engineers and Geoscientists of Alberta (APEGGA). In May 2012 TransCanada fired the engineer without cause.

Last October, the National Energy Board confirmed that it had investigated and verified two of Vokes' six-part complaint on regulatory non-compliance against TransCanada, one of the country's most active corporate lobbyists in Ottawa.

The NEB, which regulates some 70,000 kilometres worth of interprovincial pipelines, said TransCanada is now taking "remediation measures" to uphold the law on pipeline safety.

"With respect to these remediation measures, the Board is conducting further compliance verification activities, including a focused audit and inspections to evaluate adequacy of the measures, identify any potential non-compliance in TransCanada's Integrity Management Program, and determine any corrective actions that may be required."

The board, which until recently didn't post most infractions, safety orders or even have a system to impose financial penalties for noncompliance, says that "is concerned by TransCanada's non-compliance with NEB regulations, as well as its own internal management systems and procedures."

Last month, Don Wishart, TransCanada's senior operations and major projects advisor, told the Standing Senate Committee On Energy, the Environment and Natural Resources that all the issues raised by Vokes had been addressed by the company in "the normal course of quality control" and that the NEB's warning letter focused on "more administrative quality control issues."

Vokes, who will soon testify before the Standing Senate Committee, says Wishart's comments are incorrect.

"It was not administrative and his statement is not completely truthful," adds the engineer.

Vokes says that one of the reasons he publicized the existence of the complaints submitted to US and Canadian regulators was the inactivity of the NEB.

"TransCanada was not getting any fines from the National Energy Board for what were code violations," says Vokes.

The NEB won't have a program for fining violators of public safety rules until July 2013. Yet disciplinary measures were clearly laid out by parliament in the National Energy Board Act of 1985.

Many groups have expressed concern about the impartiality and role of the federal regulator. One of the nation's largest groups representing landowners has even described the NEB as a "captive agency" that works solely for pipeline companies.

According to David Core, founder of the Canadian Association of Energy and Pipeline Landowner Associations, "Pipelines operate under privileged regulatory legislation that exempt them from standard contractual, property, liability and environmental laws, much the way the rail system used to operate."

In the omnibus Bill 38 last year, for example, the federal government effectively expropriated private land disturbed by pipelines by restraining all trade and activity near a 30-metre control zone.

New regulations make it illegal for a farmer to plant a crop over a pipeline or dig a fence post on their own land near a federally regulated pipeline without first asking permission of the pipeline company. Fines include jail time and criminal records.

Pipeline lobbyists have played a key role in emasculating the nation's strongest environmental regulations such as Canada's Environmental Assessment Act, the Fisheries Act and the Navigable Waters Protection Act.

The changes make it easier to build pipelines faster and diminish protection for waterways and fish habitat. 

In B.C., Premier Christy Clark has said the Enbridge pipeline must meet state-of-the-art safety standards, while BC NDP opposes the pipeline outright.

Andrew Nikiforuk has been writing about the energy industry for two decades and is a contributing editor to The Tyee.

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