No prosecution over refinery pipeline leak

2 Feb 2018

A lengthy local authority investigation has found it cannot prosecute anyone for last year’s mid-September fuel leak from Refining New Zealand’s Auckland fuel products pipeline at Ruakaka.

The Northland Regional Council says while the discharge itself – estimated at 124 cubic metres – was a breach of the Resource Management Act, the council “does not have a case for prosecution of any party”.  

Colin Dall, the council’s Group Manager – Regulatory Services, says investigations found an unknown digger illegally searching for swamp kauri “may have” operated around the pipeline at the Ruakaka property.

While gouges apparently caused by a digger were believed to have triggered the mid-September failure of the pressurised pipeline, the actual date of the damage and its specific cause were not known.

Essentially, the damage could have occurred any time after the pipeline’s last inspection with a “magnetic flux leakage intelligent and sizing calliper pig” in July 2014.

Aerial imagery from late 2014 appeared to show lightly disturbed earth at the rupture site but “it is only with the benefit of hindsight that the image can be taken to indicate that there may have been deeper digging for swamp kauri that has subsequently been covered up”.

The site owner told the council that in late 2014 he had been approached by a contractor speculating for a kauri wood company asking for permission to “scratch around and see if there were any logs”.

The owner said he had given the contractor – whose name and contact details he did not know – “limited permission”, pointing out an easement indicated with white posts and telling him there was a pipeline there.

The owner says his “clear intention” was that the contractor should not be digging within the easement area and Mr Dall says legally, the owner could establish that in the circumstances he had taken “all reasonable steps” to prevent an offence.  There were also warning signs at the site.

Mr Dall says the council had located invoices provided by a transport company for delivery and pick up of a digger at the site in August and October 2014.

Two digger drivers were subsequently interviewed; one who said he could not recall doing any work in Ruakaka, the other who said he had driven a digger at the front of the site for one day – but not around the pipeline.

Mr Dall says for evidential purposes, authorities had no legally credible evidence the digger involved had operated around the pipeline itself, or that either of the two digger drivers had worked that pipeline area.

Legal advice obtained by the council was that the information it had obtained about the site owner, the digger drivers and the digger owner fell well-short of ‘beyond reasonable doubt’ (the standard of proof required to prosecute).

Meanwhile, Mr Dall says the council’s investigation had also determined neither Refining NZ (which owns the Auckland fuel products pipeline) nor First Gas (which monitors and inspects the pipeline on the refinery’s behalf) had any causative role in the discharge.

In a nutshell, the discharge was beyond the control of either party or their employees, both of which had a suite of very extensive protective measures, checks and other precautions to prevent damage to the pipeline.

The damage in this case was due to “a particular and unique set of circumstances which could not reasonably have been foreseen or provided against” and the effects from the discharge had been “adequately mitigated and remedied”.

The investigation had been particularly challenging because the incident that may have led to the rupture of the pipeline and subsequent discharge of jet fuel had occurred some three years earlier, making peoples’ recollection of events vague.

Mr Dall says while the council’s investigation is now effectively at an end, the entire incident had been a costly and disruptive one for the companies involved, a nuisance for large numbers of airline and other travellers affected by it and a potentially serious environmental incident.

If anything positive could be taken from the high-profile incident, it was that it had very clearly highlighted the need for those operating heavy machinery to ensure they took all possible care and respected restrictions on where they could legally operate.