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B.C. odour incidents spark questions around corporate ethics and communication

Vancouver resident Robert Ford was heading to a yoga class Sunday morning when he smelled an odour he likened to "semi-burnt fuel.
Two incidents of acrid odour in less than a week in B.C. has raised questions about corporate responsibility to inform the public when such events cause widespread concern and confusion but fall short of health and safety breaches. A boat travels past the Parkland Burnaby Refinery on Burrard Inlet in Burnaby, B.C., on Saturday, April 17, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck

Vancouver resident Robert Ford was heading to a yoga class Sunday morning when he smelled an odour he likened to "semi-burnt fuel."

As a member of council at his Kitsilano apartment building, he said he decided to check the boiler room, but it smelled fine.

"I was expecting something in there, so that was strange. I scratched my head and I went to the front door, which is right across from the beach, and it was 10 times more powerful outside," he said.

He immediately began searching online for an explanation but didn't find any answers until almost four hours later. 

"I'm just kind of perplexed at how we can have such a nasty event with no public information hardly," he said.

It was one of two acrid odours that spread over parts of Metro Vancouver in less than a week, raising questions about corporate responsibility to inform the public when such events cause widespread concern and confusion but fall short of health and safety breaches.

The smell Ford referred to was revealed to be "an unplanned issue" with a Parkland fuel refinery processing unit in neighbouring Burnaby. The heavy stench, which Ford compared to jet fuel, blanketed parts of Metro Vancouver and caused more than 100 complaints from local residents.

It came just days after a "controlled release of gas" from a FortisBC interconnect station in nearby Delta, B.C., prompted criticisms from Mayor George Harvie and numerous residents that the utility didn't notify the public for more than four hours.

Harvie said the heavy odour caused stress and panic in the community, and a flood of calls to local police and fire departments hampered Delta's emergency response services.

A statement from Fortis said it was investigating after an elevated level of the odorant added to natural gas was unknowingly sent out in a controlled release of gas.

Carol Liao, a University of B.C. Sauder fellow at the Dhillon centre for business ethics, said these incidents are not necessarily matters for legislation, but rather about accountability and ethics.

"Businesses obviously need to obey bylaws, but they also need to understand that beyond that, there is a need to act responsibly to maintain public trust," she said.

"If a business is the cause of a terrible odour that's impacting the surrounding community and beyond, it should act as a good corporate citizen and own up to the problem right away, alert public officials, alert those possibly impacted and in harm's way, mitigate the damage and be accountable."

Harvie said he was involved in both incidents as Delta's mayor and as chair of Metro Vancouver's regional district. 

"The difference between the two was (in) Metro Vancouver, air quality inspectors were on scene at the refinery, so we had more accurate information being fed back to us," he said. 

Metro Vancouver monitors emissions of particulates, nitrogen dioxide and sulphur dioxide from the Parkland refinery, and the district has said air quality objectives for the contaminants weren't exceeded Sunday.

But, Harvie said the Fortis incident was different.

"The one from Fortis was very disturbing to me and it does speak a lot about corporate values (and) corporate responsibilities. They kept the information away from us," he said. "This was just unacceptable."

Harvie took to the social media site X after the smell covered an area stretching from the Tsawwassen ferry terminal to more than 30 kilometres away in Vancouver. The mayor said he had contacted FortisBC requesting an urgent followup meeting. 

The Fortis statement released on Wednesday said work was being performed on new equipment, which was not connected to the gas system, and while a controlled release of gas was planned, the release of odour was not. 

"Further review is underway to determine why there was an elevated level of odorant in the equipment," it said.

"Although the controlled release of gas at the interconnect station on Jan. 16 contained an elevated level of this odorant, it is not harmful and there are no immediate or long-term health effects."

Fortis said it had been in contact with local First Nations, municipal and emergency officials, including Harvie, as well as government regulators, to provide information on its response. 

"We have also started a review of the incident and are working with relevant stakeholders during this process."

Kevin Farrow, technical director of Parkland, said in an interview that the refinery had paused processing operations earlier this month due to extreme cold weather.

"It was during that restart of the refinery, that one of the processing units had a plugged line, which ultimately led to the plume and odour that many experienced on Sunday," he said. "We've launched a review to better understand the root cause of what happened and how we got into this situation."

Parkland had issued an advisory on its website two days before the plume, alerting people who live nearby that they may notice noise and "higher than usual flare" from the facility.

In a timeline created by the refinery and sent to The Canadian Press, the company said the incident happened around 7:30 a.m. Sunday. 

It said Metro Vancouver had been notified by 8:30 a.m., and by 9 a.m., the Burnaby Fire Department and the RCMP had created a perimeter around the facility as a safety precaution. The RCMP was called off at 11:26 a.m., while the fire department remained in place until 3:15 p.m., the timeline said.

The refinery's first public statement Sunday was issued at 11 a.m., notifying the public of an incident that cause elevated smoke, odours and particulate matter. That was followed up at 12:30 p.m. with a media advisory, announcing the shut down of operations. 

While some, including Ford in Kitsilano, believe communication needs to come sooner to alleviate panic, Farrow said the "priority" of the refinery is to "communicate accurate and confirmed information to the public."

"We have that information now," he said. "We understand more, and we've begun to reach out to our community partners and to our neighbours, (and) you can expect a lot more information from the refinery in the coming days and weeks."

Farrow noted the refinery remains shut down but the company announced it would be conducting a "controlled and necessary operational procedure" on Thursday. 

"We do not expect any impacts of the community. We're just making them aware, just in case anything were to occur," Farrow said.

Metro Vancouver also issued an updated air quality bulletin Wednesday night, saying it "will be closely monitoring" as the refinery conducts the operation "that may result in odour, smoke and flaring."

While some residents expressed concern about the announcement online, Liao applauded the move, saying an advanced public statement can be "immensely helpful in ensuring transparency and accountability to the surrounding communities."

"It helps avoid any public confusion and the tying up of resources such as 911 calls, while also mitigating risk," she said.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Jan. 25, 2024.

Brieanna Charlebois, The Canadian Press

Note to readers: This is a corrected story. A previous version said there was a gas leak at a FortisBC plant.