How do transmission pipeline companies respond to incidents?

Just as first responders are ready to respond at a moment’s notice, so are CEPA members. Incidents are rare, but when they happen, pipeline operators are prepared to respond quickly and effectively. These teams regularly practice implementing their emergency response plans.

Responding immediately to an emergency is top priority. That’s why CEPA members developed and follow a guideline on standard response times, ensuring crews, equipment and resources get to the site of the emergency as quickly as possible.

Phase 1 - Shut down the pipeline

All CEPA members have sophisticated control centres where technicians monitor pipelines 24/7. If there is any kind of incident, sensitive leak-detection systems sound an alarm and technicians shut down the pipeline immediately using emergency shutdown devices. Valves located at key points in the line stop the flow or divert product to holding areas.

Phase 2 - Launch emergency response plan

Personnel are immediately dispatched to the incident location with a target of having the Incident Command System established in no more than two hours.

Every CEPA member has ERPs in place, which are designed to address a wide range of emergency scenarios, identify potential hazards to the public and the environment, and outline the process for handling the emergency. These ERPs are developed in coordination with federal and provincial government agencies, as well as other key stakeholders.

An Incident Management System (IMS) is established to quickly coordinate emergency response to ensure resources are used efficiently, and the public and emergency responders are safe. To ensure tight coordination, the IMS that CEPA members use adopts the principles of the Incident Command System (ICS), which is the same system most emergency management organizations in North America rely on.

The stakeholder engagement process is also launched at this phase if it hasn’t been done already. Provincial and federal government regulators and emergency services are notified, and notifications to local governments, Indigenous communities and other stakeholders can also be made.

Phase 3 - Mobilize first responders

First responders from the pipeline company arrive at the site within a target of three hours.

At this point, the pipeline operator’s responders have arrived at the site to analyze the situation, repair the leak and start clean-up. CEPA members are always ready, with first responder crews and oil spill containment and recovery equipment (OSCAR units) standing by. These crews go through extensive training and exercises with municipal emergency services to prepare for any pipeline emergency.

The stakeholder engagement continues to expand. In the case of incidents with serious safety risks, an ICS public information officer and/or liaison officer may be assigned to keep media and stakeholders informed of critical information. A safety officer is also part of the ICS structure.

Phase 4 – Arrival of initial response equipment

Emergency equipment and crews arrive within a target of six hours (for oil incidents, additional crews arrive within 72 hours due to the heavy equipment required).

Additional heavy equipment and crews arrive on the scene, including biologists, environmental experts and clean-up specialists (crews like this remain on the site as long as it takes to clean up the area). At this stage, responders will request specialized crews to deal with the specific nature of the incident.

In addition to stakeholder engagement and a media strategy, an incident-specific website may be launched to keep all interested parties up to date. Social media channels may also be used to keep the public informed.

Determining the cause

An investigation is launched to determine the cause. This may happen concurrently to other phases. The pipeline operator, provincial and federal regulators and other organizations work together to determine why the incident occurred. Depending on the incident, the Transportation Safety Board may also launch an independent investigation. Once the cause is known, steps are taken to reduce the chance of it happening again.

Public communication channels remain open to keep the public up to date on progress. Investigation results will be shared with all CEPA members


After the appropriate efforts are made to recover the product, experts begin the process of returning the incident site to its original condition or in some cases better. A thorough environmental assessment is carried out to identify effects on soil and vegetation. Contaminated soil may be removed or cleaned on site. Vegetation will be restored or replaced. Biologists and environmental specialists then monitor the site — for years if necessary — to ensure damage has been repaired and the land restored.

Stakeholder and media outreach strategies continue as required to keep the public informed during this phase. Once remediation is complete, social media, toll-free phone lines or email may be used as long-term stakeholder engagement tools.


The Pipeline Safety Act clearly states Canadian pipeline companies are liable for the complete cost of a pipeline spill, should the company be at fault. In conjunction with the appropriate regulator, CEPA members will do whatever necessary to ensure the area is cleaned, remediated and reparations are made. For these reasons, major transmission pipeline operators must have a minimum of $1 billion in financial capacity to handle a spill.

Recognizing the signs of an emergency

If you are near a pipeline right-of-way and you see or hear any of the following, it could indicate a leak:

  • An unusual whistling, hissing or roaring sound
  • A smell of petroleum (oil leak) or rotten eggs (natural gas leak)
  • Damaged or discoloured vegetation
  • A build-up of frost on the ground or pools of liquid
  • Bubbles rising in free-standing water
  • Isolated vapour or mist clouds

Protecting yourself in an emergency

If you notice any of the signs listed above, here’s what you should do:

  • Leave the area immediately — if possible, walk into the wind for at least 750 metres
  • Call 911
  • Warn any others nearby to evacuate, particularly if there are children or others requiring assistance
  • Extinguish any fires, smoking materials and potential ignition or spark sources – including any unnecessary electronic equipment
  • Call the pipeline company — look for pipeline right of way and warning signs for emergency call numbers
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