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(Reuters) - A company pivotal to Canada's most ambitious oil pipeline project has a mixed environmental record of spills and regulatory warnings, according to government documents reviewed by Reuters, a finding likely to bolster activist opposition to the proposal.
Family-owned Irving Oil, poised to build and operate the sole Atlantic export terminal for TransCanada's Energy East oil sands pipeline from Alberta, has logged at least 19 accidents classified by regulators as "environmental emergencies" at its existing facilities in eastern Canada since 2012, including three that drew warnings for delayed reporting.
Reuters gained access to New Brunswick Department of Environment incident records through a Right to Information Act request.
The lack of comparable data from similar energy companies leaves it unclear how the Irving record compares to the rest of the North American industry. Irving says it performs better on some measures than its peers, and has spent hundreds of millions of dollars upgrading its facilities. Environmental groups campaigning against Energy East say the documents show the company lags behind other operators.
"How they do in terms of preventing spills and how they manage them when they occur is hugely relevant to the discussion over whether Energy East should go ahead," said Catherine Abreu of the Ecology Action Centre, a non-profit environmental advocacy group that tracks energy facilities in eastern Canada.
According to the documents, Irving Oil's 300,000 barrel per day refinery and its associated storage terminals in the industrial city of Saint John, New Brunswick, have had environmental emergencies ranging from petroleum spills as big as 3,000 barrels, to smaller incidents such as refinery emissions of sulfur dioxide exceeding permitted levels.
( timeline of the spills: link.reuters.com/sax54w )
In one case in 2013, New Brunswick's Department of the Environment issued Irving a formal warning for taking more than a full day to report a storage tank leak of about 132 gallons of crude at its Canaport facility on the Bay of Fundy, near the site Irving is planning its terminal for Energy East.
In back-to-back accidents a year earlier, Irving was reprimanded by regulators for failing to immediately report a release of toxic sulfur dioxide gas from the refinery, and a spill of crude oil at its rail facility near a residential zone in Saint John.
"The Department considers both of these incidents environmental emergencies, although environmental emergency reporting procedures were not followed," the regulators wrote in one of the letters reviewed by Reuters.
The largest spill during the period occurred in April 2014 when as much as 3,000 barrels poured out of an overfilled Irving storage tank - enough to fill a fuel tanker truck. After that spill, Irving was required to implement new procedures for tank loading, and adjust training for staff.
Irving Oil responded to Reuters' questions about the incidents by saying it worked closely with regulators and was committed to safety and environmental performance. It said it had spent more than $300 million on environmental upgrades at its refinery over the past decade and that the plant - Canada's largest at 300,000 barrels per day - was now "one of the lowest sulfur dioxide emitters on the continent."
Irving also said its existing Canaport marine terminal operations serving the refinery were "a model other regions can look to as a benchmark."
Abreu said her research into eastern Canadian energy facilities showed otherwise: Irving had over 25 percent more comparable environmental incidents since 2012 than a similarly-sized facility near Quebec City, and as many as six times more than another plant near Montreal.
"When we talk about the two Quebec refineries together, we then see a much poorer performance by Irving," she said.
Reuters has not verified the data cited by Abreu.
A Reuters review of spill and air emissions disclosures in the Canadian province of Saskatchewan and in the U.S. state of Delaware showed, however, refineries in those places also recorded fewer comparable incidents.
Energy East, billed as an alternative to the long-delayed Keystone XL pipeline, would move some 1.1 million barrels of Alberta crude per day more than 2,800 miles (4,600-km) to coastal New Brunswick, for the first time linking trillions of dollars worth of western Canadian oil with overseas markets. (Click here for a graphic: link.reuters.com/xud22v )
While environmental fears have mainly focused on the risk of pipeline spills, critics have also raised concerns about the safety of storage and shipping. Irving's role would be to build and operate a C$300 million ($244.22 million) 850,000 storage tank facility capable of serving more than 100 ocean-going tankers per year.
The Energy East project suffered a setback last month when environmental groups' concerns about endangered beluga whales led it to scrap plans for another export terminal in Quebec. TransCanada also pushed back the pipeline's opening by two years to 2020.
Activists now worry the Bay of Fundy off the coast of New Brunswick may present similar challenges to Quebec, and are planning protests against Energy East beginning next month.
"All eyes are switching to the Bay of Fundy now," said Lois Corbett, director of the Conservation Council of New Brunswick, which is involved in the campaign.
The often fog-shrouded Bay of Fundy, with the world’s largest tides and swirling currents, poses unique challenges, said Dave Thompson, who formerly investigated incidents and was a Bay of Fundy Baykeeper, a role within the Conservation Council.
"If you think you’re going to clean up an oil spill in the Bay of Fundy, you better hope it happens in the morning on a summer day that’s not foggy when there’s no current," said Thompson. "Otherwise, good luck."
The bay also serves as the summer feeding grounds for North Atlantic right whales, one of the world’s most endangered whale species.
In 2003, the Irving Oil worked together with scientists at the Boston-based New England Aquarium to reroute shipping lanes away from the whales’ habitat. But increased tanker traffic, activists say, could raise the risk of whales getting hit by oil-laden tankers.
($1 = 1.2284 Canadian dollars)
(The story was refiled to fix the spelling of theword "pipeline" in the headline)
Editing by Bruce Wallace and Tomasz Janowski