CBC News has revealed the identity of a former engineer, who was widely known as the TransCanada whistleblower.
In an exclusive TV interview with CBC News, Evan Vokes said he reported TransCanada’s substandard practices to the federal energy regulator. He did this because he believed the company’s management, right up to the chief executive officer, refused to act on his complaints. Vokes’s main concerns involved the competency of some pipeline inspectors and the company’s lack of compliance with welding regulations set by the National Energy Board (NEB), the federal energy industry regulator.
“I wrote a series of emails to a series of project managers saying, ‘We can’t do this practice, we can’t do this practice, we can’t do this practice,'” Vokes told the CBC. “And I received increasingly pressured emails about how things were OK to do it that way.”
Vokes said he refused to back down. That’s when he faced friction in the workplace, which took a toll on his personal well-being.
“It was unbelievable the effect it was having on my health,” Vokes told CBC News chief investigative correspondent Diana Swain. “I was certainly on my way to a heart attack, or a stroke, for sure. There is no doubt about it.”
Vokes reportedly took his complaints to top brass at TransCanada. He said he met with the Calgary-based company’s vice-president of operations, and he also wrote a detailed letter to the firm’s chief executive officer Russ Girling. After long periods of frustration, he finally made a formal complaint to the NEB.
CBC News reports that these events were confirmed in an interview by the board’s chief engineer.
“We understand he went right through the chain of command to the top in [TransCanada Pipelines Ltd.],” Iain Colquhoun said in an interview with the news network.
“Evan Vokes took the initiative to try and resolve the problem using the internal procedures and we would encourage people to do that,” Colquhoun said. “But having not got there, he took the extra step of involving the regulator, and we would certainly encourage that.”
The painstaking process was too much pressure on Vokes. CBC News reports that he went on stress leave in November 2011. In March 2012, he met with top National Energy Board officials and on May 1, he filed a formal written complaint with the NEB. TransCanada fired him on May 8.
Vokes, 46, had been a machinist and a welder before he returned to the University of Alberta at age 30 to become a metallurgical engineer.
Last Friday, the NEB issued a public letter to TransCanada. Without naming Vokes, it said “many of the allegations of regulatory non-compliance identified by the complainant were verified by TransCanada’s internal audit.”
The NEB went on to say that it was “concerned by TransCanada’s non-compliance with NEB regulations, as well as its own internal management systems and procedures.”
CBC News reports that the regulator warned the company it would not tolerate further infractions of regulations related to welding inspections, the training of pipeline inspectors and internal engineering standards. It also announced a further audit of the company’s inspection and engineering procedures.
In an email statement to CBC News, TransCanada said “our reviews concluded that the items raised by the former employee were identified and addressed through routine quality control processes well before any facilities went into service. We are confident that any remaining concerns the regulator has about compliance and pipeline safety will be unwarranted.”
The NEB is reportedly continuing its investigation of TransCanada and has warned that if the company doesn’t fix the identified problems, it “will not hesitate to impose appropriate corrective actions.”
CBC News explains that many of the complaints by Vokes focused on TransCanada’s practice of allowing its pipeline and fabrication contractors to hire the inspectors that would be inspecting the contractors’ work.
In 1999, the NEB imposed a regulation which requires the companies contracting the work, such as TransCanada, to supply independent inspectors to inspect the contractors’ work.
“There is an inherent conflict when a prime contractor does his own inspections,” Vokes told the CBC, especially when the project involves gas pipelines under high pressure because the consequence could be greater since it relates to public safety.
“In pipelining, there is a huge amount of stress for a very thin pipe,” he said. “You certainly should be paying attention to what is wrong with your pipe, making sure nothing happens to it, and there are no injurious defects to your pipe as it is being put into the ground.”
CBC News reports that TransCanada has publicly admitted it did not always follow this regulation in the past, but acknowledged it was industry standard. Vokes said TransCanada believed independent inspection slowed production — ultimately driving up construction costs.