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Council of Canadians recognizes Evan Vokes with Whistleblower award

Photo: Evan Vokes receives our Special Award for Whistleblowing.

Photo: Evan Vokes receives our Special Award for Whistleblowing.

On October 4, Evan Vokes received a ‘Special Award for Whistleblowing’ from the Council of Canadians at this year’s annual conference in Hamilton. Vokes, who gave a powerful acceptance speech at our gathering, first came to public attention in late 2012 after he went to the National Energy Board with concerns about TransCanada inspection practices. TransCanada is the Calgary-based corporation behind the 1.1 million barrels per day Energy East tar sands pipeline and the 830,000 barrels per day Keystone XL pipeline to the United States.

In October 2012, CBC reported, “A former TransCanada engineer says he reported its substandard practices to the federal energy regulator because he believed the company’s management, right up to the chief executive officer, refused to act on his complaints.”

“Vokes said he met with the Calgary-based company’s vice-president of operations, and he also wrote a detailed letter to TransCanada Corp. chief executive officer Russ Girling. Frustrated, he finally made a formal complaint to the National Energy Board… Vokes said he raised concerns about the competency of some pipeline inspectors and the company’s lack of compliance with welding regulations set by the NEB, the federal energy industry regulator. …Vokes said he refused to back down and the workplace friction eventually took its toll [on his health]. …Vokes 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.”

“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. …Vokes said the NEB regulation ensures contractors can’t pressure inspectors to sign off on work that is not up to code. TransCanada has publicly admitted it did not always follow this regulation in the past, but said it was industry standard. Vokes said TransCanada believed independent inspection slowed production, driving up construction costs.”

The National Energy Board found that Vokes acted properly in taking his concerns first to TransCanada management and then to the regulator. It also found that many of his allegations were valid.

“[On October 12, 2012], 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 said it was ‘concerned by TransCanada’s non-compliance with NEB regulations, as well as its own internal management systems and procedures’. 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. The board, however, said the deficiencies ‘do not represent immediate threats to the safety of people or the environment’.”

Eighteen months later, in February 2014, CBC reported, “Earlier this week, the National Energy Board released an audit of TransCanada’s integrity-management system conducted after the complaints of whistleblower Evan Vokes were publicized through a CBC News investigation in October 2012. …The board found TransCanada didn’t comply with several key areas including hazard identification, risk assessment and control, inspection, and management review. But the audit also found the processes now employed by TransCanada have ‘identified the majority, and most significant, of its hazards and risks’. The NEB ordered TransCanada to submit, within 30 days, a corrective action plan which details how the company will address the areas in which it is failing to comply.”

“[While Vokes complaints were validated], that is cold comfort for Vokes. He was fired by TransCanada a week after he filed a formal complaint with the NEB in May 2011 and has only worked sporadically ever since. Vokes said he stood up because it was the right thing to do but other engineers at TransCanada did not.”

Furthermore, Mike De Souza reported in May 2014 that, “A newly released internal e-mail from TransCanada Corp. is raising fresh questions about whether its managers attempted to undermine the credibility of [Vokes] who questioned the company’s commitment to safety, describing him as ‘disgruntled’. …Vokes obtained the latest email in February 2014 following a request he made through Canadian legislation that protects personal information. TransCanada censored large portions of the message before releasing it, but one section of the email mentions what was described as ‘managing the EV [Evan Vokes] credibility issue’. ‘My understanding is that we have been reasonably successful at influencing authorities [portion censored] and pointing out EV is disgruntled, and actually had the responsibility to correct these same matters and did not’, said the email, dated July 26, 2013. TransCanada declined to identify the employee who wrote the comments about Vokes, or to say which authorities were referred to in the email.”

The Council of Canadians extends its appreciation to Mr. Vokes and believes that the information he made public at great personal cost must continue to be considered as TransCanada advances its Energy East pipeline and advocates for its Keystone XL pipeline.

Further reading
Energy East pipeline company found non-compliant in safety audit (February 25, 2014 blog)
Whistleblower presents ‘bleak picture’ of TransCanada pipeline safety (June 14, 2013 blog)
TransCanada fails to comply with pipeline construction regulations (October 17, 2012 blog)