Flaws in P.E.I.'s Fiona response highlighted by acting director of public safety

There was no backup generator in place for the Irving Oil tank farm in Charlottetown when post-tropical storm Fiona knocked out power to the entire province on Sept. 24. (CBC - image credit)
There was no backup generator in place for the Irving Oil tank farm in Charlottetown when post-tropical storm Fiona knocked out power to the entire province on Sept. 24. (CBC - image credit)

There was no backup generator in place for the Irving Oil tank farm in Charlottetown when post-tropical storm Fiona knocked out power to the entire province on Sept. 24 — even though P.E.I.'s Emergency Measures Organization had identified that property as the single most important piece of infrastructure in the province.

All fuel deliveries to P.E.I. go through that facility. Without power, there was no way to pump fuel from those tanks to be distributed to gas stations on the Island, some of which had their own generators and were able to pump fuel from their tanks — until they ran out.

On Friday morning, MLAs on the province's Standing Committee on Health and Social Development — which is also responsible for public safety — were told EMO had no authority to order Irving Oil to have a generator on standby.

"We need to have the generator here, if I could state that with confidence, that's what I think we need," said Tanya Mullally, P.E.I.'s acting director for public safety.

"How that happens? I don't have the authority to make that happen."

Louise Martin/CBC
Louise Martin/CBC

Mullally told the committee a generator was en route from the Irving terminal in Halifax and was about two hours away when power was restored to the tank farm about 36 hours into the outage.

She said Irving installed a transfer switch at the tank farm years ago to allow the facility to quickly switch to generator power, but despite "many discussions" with EMO on the topic over the years, the company did not deploy a generator to P.E.I. until after Fiona struck.

"They're a private corporation," said Mullally. "They made a decision that I think they see now could have been different."

CBC News reached out to Irving Oil Friday but did not receive an immediate response.

On Sept. 25, when power was still out to the tank farm, CBC reached out to the company to ask if it was able to ship fuel to gas stations on P.E.I.

"With power outages still being experienced, our teams are working hard to reopen retail sites as soon as possible to offer fuel supply on Prince Edward Island," was the company's emailed response.

"With safety as a top priority, our teams are continuing to devote efforts to ensuring security of supply at these sites to meet the communities' needs at this time."

If this was in the middle of the winter it would have been so much worse - Tanya Mullally, P.E.I.'s acting director for public safety.

For days after the storm, gas stations that had fuel and power faced long lineups as Islanders tried to buy gas to operate their own generators. In some cases law enforcement had to be called in to help deal with the crowds and clear a path so fuel shipments could be brought in.

"If this was in the middle of the winter it would have been so much worse," Mullally told the committee.

O'Leary-Inverness MLA Robert Henderson said all three gas stations in his district ran out of fuel, and asked Mullally why EMO does not have the power to compel Irving Oil to maintain a generator on-site.

Province of P.E.I.
Province of P.E.I.

She said the Island Regulatory and Appeals Commission regulates fuel and could stipulate that Irving Oil as the supplier, along with individual stations be required to have generators.

But she said she would welcome changes to the Emergency Measures Act to give her office the jurisdiction to do that.

"There are lots of gaps" in the act, she said, that need to be addressed.

Mullally said P.E.I.'s Emergency Measures Act is outdated, having been introduced in 1999, and her department has been asking government for years to update the legislation.

She also told the committee her office has been asking for increased staffing, one of the recommendations made in the review of government's response to post-tropical storm Dorian in 2019.

"We don't have the staffing capacity to operate for 24 days straight," Mullally said of the effort EMO was required to put forth to respond to Fiona.

Lack of communication

A lack of backup power also impacted communications and restricted access to the province's 911 service, Mullally said.

The service itself was operational, Mullally told the committee, although some of the dedicated 911 phone lines went down and had to be diverted to a backup system, where staff were standing by.

The biggest problem, she said, was in Islanders being able to call in.

"What was the challenge was individuals' ability to make a phone call on a cell phone or on a land line."

Mullally said some cell towers had back-up batteries, some had generators but ultimately she said a lack of power to those sites crippled communications.

"So back to the gas station … those [cell tower] sites should also have backup power as well. Without question," she said.