A custom software tool to enable rapid response to air-quality incidents in the Alberta oil sands
Alberta contains the third-largest crude oil resource in the world, as well as considerable natural gas deposits. As these resources are developed there is an increased risk of industrial accidents, which increase the chance of pollutants being accidentally released into the atmosphere. The province’s environment ministry needed a tool to help them monitor, evaluate and respond quickly to emergency air-quality problems whenever accidents occurred.
Alberta’s oil sands deposits alone extend across nearly 90,000 square miles. Development activities across this territory, as well as pipelines and processing operations, mean that adverse air quality events can happen in a large number of locations across the province, many of which are remote and difficult to monitor. Potential incidents include chlorine releases, aqueous ammonia spills, oil/bitumen storage tank fires, sulphur fires, pipeline ruptures and chemical process upsets . The effects of such events on human health, local ecology and wildlife could vary considerably depending on the nature of the emission, weather conditions at the time of the event and the speed of the response by provincial officials and industry actors.
Our work on this project began even before Alberta issued a call for proposals in 2010. Among our numerous in-house R&D initiatives at the time was a project our software team had been developing: a tool that would combine weather forecasts and atmospheric dispersion modelling, enabling industry leaders, field operators, regulators and government to manage and mitigate risks associated with both planned and accidental gas releases at well sites, gas plants and airsheds.
As a result of this proactive work, we were well positioned to respond to Alberta’s call for a system to meet its air quality monitoring needs. Building on the work of our R&D practice, we developed a customized tool for joint use by government and industry called the Emergency Air Monitoring and Assessment System (EAMAS).
A state-of-the-art, web-based GIS system, EAMAS draws together several streams of information to give emergency response teams and decision-makers clear and detailed predictions of how an accidental gas release can be expected to behave at a specific site. The system’s components include:
- data from a network of 18 air quality monitoring stations
- numerical weather prediction using the Weather Research and Forecasting model (WRF)
- the Heavy Gas System (HGSYSTEM) release model software
- an advanced atmospheric dispersion model (CALPUFF)
This powerful combination of real-time environmental information, advanced weather prediction, and dispersion modelling enables EAMAS to offer detailed predictions of the magnitude of accidental gas releases--all in a user-friendly web-based interface.
In addition to developing EAMAS itself, our environment team worked closely with Alberta’s emergency response teams to further refine and customize the software, provide operational support, and train staff in the effective use of the system.
EAMAS has been in use by both government and industry in Alberta since its release. In addition to serving its planned role of monitoring air quality around industrial sites and infrastructure, EAMAS proved to be a valuable tool for Alberta’s environment ministry during the devastating Fort McMurray wildfire in the spring of 2016. Decision-makers were able to use EAMAS’s advanced weather modelling and web-enabled map to gain timely insight into how the fire’s smoke plume was behaving as weather shifted. In combination with information from the 18 air quality monitoring stations in the Wood Buffalo Environmental Association’s network, EAMAS helped to inform leaders’ decisions relating to both fire and air quality risks as they worked to protect Albertans during one of the worst natural disasters in Canadian history