A natural gas pipeline near Otterburne, Manitoba early Saturday morning shot flames hundreds of meters into the sky. courtesy Ken Peters
The RCMP have concluded their investigation into a massive pipeline explosion near Otterburne, Man., and say they don't believe the cause is suspicious.
The explosion, which happened about 50 kilometres south of Winnipeg, has left thousands without gas to heat their homes as temperatures drop to -20 C, feeling more like -34 C with the wind chill.
The outage began after a natural gas pipeline blew up shortly after midnight on Saturday and burned for more than 12 hours. Officials said close to 4,000 people have now lost heat in several communities.
While RCMP said the cause of the explosion is not suspicious, officials from the Transportation Safety Board of Canada are still looking into what caused it.
The Rural Municipality of Hanover declared a state of local emergency Saturday afternoon in a news release that said the natural gas outage was expected to last 24 to 72 hours.
Temperatures dipped to near -20 C overnight, and on Sunday, Environment Canada issued a blowing snow warning for the Winnipeg area. Winds made the temperature feel more like -34.
"We are in the midst of another temperature drop. A bit of an Arctic front is moving in here, and to the south of us, there is a blizzard system, so people in this area are going to get a nasty, cold, winter storm day," CBC's Katie Nicholson reported.
Emergency Measures spokesperson Nicki Albus on Saturday acknowledged cold weather is on the way.
"We know it's cold and people may be concerned about that but we are on the job here. Everyone here's communicating well. We have a great group of people at the site and in the communities who have set up their emergency operation centres to handle this dilemma."
Warming centres were quickly set up in the area to take in residents who had no heat.
The Abundant Life Fellowship Church in Grunthal opened its doors as a warming centre on Saturday.
“At this point, we’ve only had a few people coming, but we are definitely going to stay open for as long as we need to be running,” said Ester Reimer, who's with the church. “We have people in place to help with meals and any of those other things that are going to become necessary.”
The church’s pastor, David Neufeld, said they expect more people to come throughout the day.
Tanker trucks of natural gas were delivered to a number of places in the area on Sunday, including the De Salaberry Health Centre in St. Pierre-Joly and the Heritage Life Personal Care Home in Niverville.
The Menno Home in Grunthal, and Kleefeld School were scheduled to be connected to natural gas later on Sunday.
TransCanada and Manitoba Hydro set up a community information centre for residents on Sunday. It was slated to open at 3 p.m. local time at the John Henry Banquet Room in Niverville.
Officials from both companies said they would be on hand to answer questions about specific properties and the status of natural gas in the area.
The centre will have business hours from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m.
Selinger visits explosion site
Premier Greg Selinger visited Niverville Sunday afternoon. He said officials are dedicated to getting the natural gas running as quickly as possible.
“No question it’s a surprise for all Manitobans to have this kind of a disaster in the province,” said Selinger. “The good news is everybody is working very closely together to return natural gas and heating to people’s homes.”
Selinger acknowledged, though, that the extreme weather was slowing things down.
“Weather’s horrible. It makes it very difficult for the people trying to fix the system to be outside. It’s extremely cold,” said Selinger. “They are prepared to work 24 hours a day with a variety of shifts to do that so there’s a lot of personnel being brought into the province.”
Selinger noted the site is now under federal jurisdiction, and multiple agencies are working to try and solve the problem.
“I did visit the area where the incident occurred and there is a strategy in place to secure a source of natural gas safely as soon as possible,” he said.
Blizzard will add to outage misery
“We’re expecting if these blizzard conditions continue that we’ll start to see more people come in because that will affect the heat in their houses,” he said.
The town of Niverville said it has lost gas service and that will continue for at least 24 hours and possibly "multiple days."
Manitoba Hydro said the following communities are affected:
- New Bothwell.
- St. Malo.
- Ste. Agathe.
Hydro said it does not know when service will be restored but that people should "prepare for an extended outage."
The utility is reminding customers to use only approved space heaters indoors, and where possible to conserve use of electricity during the gas outage. It says people should not use barbecues or any unapproved heaters indoors because they may produce carbon monoxide. Anyone leaving home should shut off the water supply and turn down the thermostat.
Hydro officials said there has been an increased demand on the electrical system in the area because of the loss of natural gas, but contingencies are in place to manage the increased demand.
Officials are continuing to monitor the demands on the system in the area.
At least three schools had to cancel classes because of lack of power to their buildings. École St.Malo School, École Héritage Immersion and Institute Collegial St. Pierre all cancelled Monday's classes. Officials did not know when the schools would be able to reopen.
The New Bothwell cheese plant also had to shut down production because its sanitizer is dependent on gas to operate. The plant may try to switch its generator over to propane this week if the outage persists.
Investigators kept from scene by bad weather
Transportation and Safety Board investigators were unable to investigate the site of the explosion on Sunday because of extremely poor weather in the Otterburne area.
According to TSB investigators, the weather conditions were too hazardous for them to access the site.
Investigators planned to return to the site on Monday in order to review what kind of an investigation will be needed.
There are five classes of investigation, and officials believe the Otterburne explosion could merit a Class 3 investigation, which would involve a full investigation coupled with a public report.
Trouble at the site of the pipeline was reported early Saturday when RCMP responded at around 1:05 a.m. to a "loud explosion."
Witnesses who live in the area said it was massive. Paul Rawluk lives nearby and drove to the site.
"As we got closer, we could see these massive 200 to 300 metre high flames just shooting out of the ground and it literally sounded like a jet plane," he said. "And that's the thing that really got us, was the sound of it."
He said it was hard to describe the scale.
"Massive, like absolutely massive," he said. "The police were by [Highway] 59 and you could just see little cars out there and you could see in comparison how big the flame was. It was just literally two to 300 metres in the air. And bright, I mean lit up the sky."
Otterburne resident Marc Labossiere was forced from his home moments after shooting a video of the blast. He lost power a short time later, and police knocked on his door, telling him to get out.
He's back at home now, and said he could still see the flames late Saturday morning.
"It went from 500-600 feet in the air down to manageable," he said. "Like, something they're just waiting for it to snuff itself out and it's still burning right now."
Police said the burning gas was non-toxic.
Pipeline crews worked to vent gas
The pipeline, which is owned by TransCanada, has been temporarily shut down according to a statement from a company spokesman. The statement also said that nearby roads have been closed, and that the company is not aware of any reports of injuries.
Five houses within the vicinity of the fire were evacuated by RCMP and St-Pierre-Jolys Fire Department.
The residents of two of the homes have been allowed to return, but police were not letting residents return to the three homes closest to the site.
Crews spent most of the day venting the natural gas from the system to eliminate the fuel source for the fire.
The company said that process generated a loud noise but posed no risk to the public.
By Saturday afternoon, more than 12 hours after it started, TransCanada officials said the fire was out.
The cause of the fire is under investigation.
No timeline for power restoration
Manitoba Hydro and TransCanada officials could not say when natural gas would be restored to the area.
TransCanada officials noted both the National Energy Board and the Transportation Safety Board had to assess the damage at the pipeline site and give approval to TransCanada before they could start repairing the break.
Hydro officials said customers in the area should prepare for an extended gas outage.
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