By Ed Johnson, Citizen Journalist
During a recent presentation by a member of the BC Ministry of Environment to the Association of Vancouver Island Coastal Communities (AVICC), local politicians were made aware of the woeful current state of affairs along the BC Coast with respect to oil pollution damage and clean-up.
A proposed Enbridge oil pipeline would stretch from Alberta to Kitimat – a distance of 1177 kilometres and would be the longest Enbridge pipeline in North America with a relatively huge capacity to move 525 thousand barrels per day (bpd). The next longest Enbridge pipeline runs from Alberta to Illinois and only carries 180 thousand bpd over 1086 kilometres.
Concern over the proposed pipeline increased recently when Enbridge was found at fault for a spill in Michigan that is costing over $800 million to ‘clean’ and doesn’t include long-term environmental costs. Of the 56 kilometres of the Kalamazoo river that was impacted two years ago, only a few hundred meters of the river has since been reopened apparently. But this was a land-based spill. What are the risks to the BC coastline of a tanker spill and how well prepared are communities like Sidney and Saanich?
According to Graham Knox, a Manager in the Environmental Emergency Program at the BC Ministry of Environment, whose comments were vetted by a ministry communications officer, the first step when considering a pipeline and tanker traffic should be a risk assessment that includes all levels of government. An assessment would determine spill response prevention, preparedness and response requirements. But no risk assessment has even begun.
Beyond a risk assessment there are also few physical resources in preparation for a spill. Knox informed that there is no readily available chemical dispersant system, no salvage cranes available for the critical first step in securing a vessel to make it safe for emergency response crews, and no regulatory requirement for escort tugs.
As well, Knox stated, the Canadian Coast Guard has no ability or training to deal with a chemical spill and only limited capacity to address hydrocarbon spills. And the lack of preparation apparently gets worse.
Most of the current preparations for spills deal with a type of light oil that floats. Bitumen, the super tanker’s intended cargo, is heavy and rapidly sinks. In a coastal spill bitumen would sink to the bottom of the ocean, attaching itself to organic material and sediment making cleanup next to impossible. “Water befouled by oil, will kill the fish, contaminate the soil, sicken the animals, and reverberate through the whole of the ecosystem” said Stewart Phillip, President and Grand Chief of the Union of BC Indian Chiefs (UBCIC) which opposes the pipeline.
Another interesting question is whether Greater Saanich area taxpayers would be liable for cleanup costs in the event of a spill. How much would the company have to pay? According to Knox and the BC Ministry of Environment, the limits of liability for cleanup are set by the federal government and are based on the size of the vessel and cargo involved with the largest tankers having a liability limit of $1.33 billion dollars. However, the costs to cleanup the Exxon Valdez spill in Alaska was estimated to range from $3 billion to $7 billion in 1989 dollars. Any costs over the current limit would be paid by taxpayers and not the company. In addition there is no federal or provincial legislation focusing on the costs to natural resources resulting from spills which has led some to call for a polluter-pay system to be in place in BC.
First Nations and municipalities across BC have taken positions and cast their votes regarding the pipeline proposal. Some are opposing the pipeline along with citizens groups readying for protests while others have their eyes set on the profits to be gained from exports.
How do you think the claims and counter-claims regarding this proposal affect the Saanich area including Sidney-by-the-Sea, Island View Beach or Shoal Harbour? Your comments following the online version will form part of the basis for the next month’s instalment.