Safety guidelines coming out of substation fire

Chilliwack officials are now drafting operational safety guidelines to be used in the future by emergency responders

Fighting an electrical substation fire — like the one that erupted in Chilliwack a few months ago — is significantly more complicated than battling a typical structure fire.

Thousands of litres of oil with trace amounts of PCBs escaped from a burning transformer during the fire, and a huge plume of black smoke was seen hanging over Chilliwack.

No substation employees or firefighters were injured, but officials are now drafting operational safety guidelines to be used in the future by emergency responders, should another similar disaster ever strike again.

BC Hydro is meeting with Chilliwack Fire Department officials to discuss the Jan. 27 incident at the Atchelitz substation on Lickman Road.

“A post incident review was conducted as a followup to the substation fire,” Assistant Fire Chief Ian Josephson told The Progress.

The substation transformer containing 115,000 litres of insulating mineral oil burst into flames, and some of it migrated into a nearby ditch.

More than 50,000 litres of oil has been recovered to date but the recovery process is still ongoing.

In the weeks since the fire, the focus has been on site remediation conducted by SNC Lavelin and efforts to prevent migration of the spilled oil and ongoing cleanup, said BC Hydro officials.

“We’ll also be meeting again this summer to discuss what we can do for the future pre-incident planning,” Josephson said. “It’s about finding some common ground on how we can work together in future.”

There are several substation facilities in the area, and Chilliwack firefighters might be called on some day to offer mutual aid to other fire departments in the region.

“So these guidelines are definitely something that’s needed,” Josephson said.

The main outcome is a better working relationship and communications between the various agencies.

“If we’re ever called out again, we’ll be better prepared and we’ll understand what they need from us and vice-versa.”

Substation fires are quite rare, according to BC Hydro records.

“Over the past four decades incidents have averaged about one per year for more than 400 sites,” reads the online info. “In all cases the impact of the fire was limited to the site.”

BC Hydro has established fire safety plans for all their facilities.

Coun. Chuck Stam had praise for the forethought.

“I think it’s good public policy to be looking for ways to protect the community in this way.

“We all rely on hydro in so many ways, that half day without any power in January highlighted for us just how much we depend it. So if we can put some safety measures in place to guide us in the future, it makes sense.”

Stam said he’s curious to learn about the environmental impacts of the black plume of smoke, if any, especially any ramifications for nearby farmers.

“Given that we’re the regional bread basket with so many producers in the area, I want to know what the impact was,” he said.

Both the site and a nearby property are undergoing independent remediation and  reporting requirements by Ministry of Environment have been met, said ministry spokesman Suntanu Dalal.

“BC Hydro had retained a qualified professional to conduct air plume modeling to indicate how airborne contaminants would have travelled during the substation fire,” he said.

“Ministry of Environment will be able to comment further on potential risks to human health and the environment posed by contaminants deposited from the smoke plume after we have reviewed the complete and final report from the qualified professional, and have consulted fully with agriculture, health and environment agency stakeholders.”

The cause of the fire is “still under investigation,” said BC Hydro officials, in a FAQ on their website.

Agricultural owners and dairy farmers in the surrounding area are being contacted by provincial reps about potential impacts to their crops or grazing lands from both the smoke and spilled oil.

“This assessment is underway and is a high priority,” according to BC Hydro.

They’re also looking at all the wells in the area to ensure there was no groundwater contamination.

BC Hydro plans to replace the damaged transformer at the site eventually.

“We expect that it will take approximately six months to remove the damaged transformer and install a new one. In the meantime, the other transformers in the substation are entirely capable of supplying power to customers.”

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