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  • Rolling the dice on the Salish Sea | by Judith Lavoie


    US studies show a near doubling of risk if Kinder Morgan proceeds, and tens of billions in economic loss if a major spill occurs.

    Humpback and tanker.jpg


    (This story was first published in Focus Magazine in December, 2013.)

    IT WAS THE KIND OF SPARKLING DAY on Haro Strait that lifted the soul and showcased BC’s unique beauty. Against a backdrop of the Gulf Islands and the snowy outline of Mount Baker, a humpback whale surfaced in front of our boat.

    But, as bright yellow plywood drift cards were tossed into the ocean from Raincoast Conservation Foundation’s research vessel Achiever, it was also a stark reminder of all that could be lost if oil spills into the Salish Sea. Staring into the water as the cards drifted towards land, I found it was too easy to imagine the whale emerging through a sheen of oil.

    On the horizon looms the likelihood of a proliferation of oil tankers, freighters, fuelling barges and coal bulk carriers, making the Salish Sea a carbon export superhighway. Fears are growing on both sides of the US/Canada border that increasing the number of tankers carrying diluted bitumen from Alberta oil sands through the fragile environment of the southern Gulf Islands and San Juan Islands could be a recipe for disaster when combined with other projects boosting marine traffic.

    The Kinder Morgan proposal to twin its Trans Mountain Pipeline, due to be submitted to the National Energy Board later this year, would see the number of laden tankers leaving Westridge Marine Terminals in Burnaby increase from five to a possible 34 tankers a month, with the flow of oil growing to 890,000 barrels a day from 300,000 a day. The company wants the expansion in place by 2017.

    Startling figures in a US study show that the risk of an oil spill in Juan de Fuca Strait or Haro Strait will almost double with approval of projects such as the pipeline twinning, the Pacific Gateway coal export terminal at Cherry Point in Washington, and expansion of coal exports from Fraser Surrey Docks.

    “The early word [from a US vessel traffic risk assessment study] is that when we look at the increase in vessel traffic, it looks as if the relative risk of an incident leading to a spill is about 189 percent above the 2010 baseline,” said David Byers, response manager for Washington State’s Department of Ecology. Washington is keeping a careful eye on the Kinder Morgan plan. Byers explained: “What we are looking at is a dramatic shift in how energy is being transported and the increased probability of spills as energy is being transported…There’s increased concern about a spill with different types of oil, such as the new, heavier oils being developed in Alberta.”

    Preliminary results from the same study, conducted by George Washington University for the Puget Sound Partnership, say that although tug escorts, ship pilots, and increased co-operation between the US and Canadian coastguards are effective ways of reducing risks, as the spill probability rises, areas in most danger are Haro Strait, Juan de Fuca Strait, and the coastline stretching to Cape Flattery on the Olympic Peninsula.

    The financial implications are astounding. Another study by Washington State Department of Ecology concluded that a major spill could cost $11.8 billion (in 2013 dollars) and 165,000 jobs. That study, described as “conservative” in its estimates, looks at closed fisheries and the impact on tourism only until the spill is cleaned up. Categories studied include the value of killed fish, loss of the shellfish industry, vessel delays and port disruption, lost park income, lost wages and loss of recreational fishing and boating business.

    The story told by the 1644 drift cards released by Raincoast and Georgia Strait Alliance, in areas where vessels must turn or navigate narrow channels, should alarm British Columbians, assuming similar losses would be seen on southern Vancouver Island. The cards show an oil slick would rapidly foul the area from the San Juan Islands and Gulf Islands to Victoria Harbour, Clover Point, Gordon Head, Metchosin, Cadboro Bay, Point-No-Point, French Beach, and Sandcut Beach.

    “One of the big concerns is the speed at which oil can move when it’s windy,” said Andy Rosenberger, Raincoast marine biologist and study coordinator. “One drop at the mouth of the Fraser ended up at Saturna Island the next day, a distance of more than 30 kilometres. If the cards were oil, it would have moved and spread a considerable distance before any response would even have been undertaken.”

    Proponents of the $5.4 billion Kinder Morgan project emphasize that oil tankers have safely sailed the route for decades. Seattle Marine Exchange data shows about 60 tankers a year now visit Westridge and Kinder Morgan envisages that, if the project is approved, the number would rise to about 350 a year.

    “A 60-year record of crude oil tanker safety on the south coast doesn’t just happen. This has been achieved because the safety regime in which tankers operate has continuously improved and changed significantly over those six decades,” says Kinder Morgan’s submission to the Tanker Safety Expert Panel.

    Rosenberger concedes that, in recent decades, the number of tanker and freighter collisions have decreased, but, as he tracks the drift card pickups, he worries that it will take only one major accident to permanently change the Salish Sea environment. “Collisions happen when there’s more traffic. Technology is rarely a problem, but there’s always a human behind the technology,” he said.

    Brian Falconer, Achiever’s captain, has tracked accidents and resulting oil spills and has little confidence in either assurances that a Salish Sea accident is unlikely to happen or that there is the capacity to clean it up. “This crude oil dilutant is going into tankers operated by the Chinese and they do not have the same standards as we have here.”

    As the humpback again surfaces beside yellow cards bobbing on the surface, Raincoast biologist Misty MacDuffee wonders what chance endangered southern resident killer whales would have if there was a spill. “It would be devastating for such a small population if they were in the wrong place at the wrong time,” she said. “We’re also looking at the salmon in Georgia Strait and the estuary of the Fraser River. What kind of threat would more tankers bring to that habitat?”

    Such unease is compounded by fears that oil cleanup plans are ineffective and most of the oil will remain in the environment.
    An oil spill preparedness study by Alaska-based Nuka Research and Planning Group, commissioned by the BC government, found that in Juan de Fuca Strait, depending on conditions, between 9 and 31 percent of a 70,000-barrel spill would be recovered. Compounding the growing perception that BC would be incapable of adequately responding to a spill are internal government documents showing that even a medium-sized spill would overwhelm provincial resources.

    BC has not conducted direct risk assessment or dollar-loss studies, but the Nuka information may be the basis for future studies, said a ministry spokesman.

    The Islands Trust, representing those likely to be smack in the middle of any spill, has pushed BC to increase its response capabilities. Background to a 2012 Islands Trust resolution to the Union of BC Municipalities, asking the province for a permanent BC spill response fund with funding from industry, includes graphs showing BC’s spill program budgets and staff are miniscule compared to those of Washington and Alaska.

    BC’s Environmental Emergency Program has 16 full-time staff, including 10 response officers in 7 communities, and about $2.4 million a year in dedicated funding—numbers which pale compared to Washington with about 70 staff and a budget of $13 million. There are no rescue tugs in BC and, instead, the province relies on commercial tugs. The closest rescue tug is in Washington.

     The federal government leads marine spill response and Sheila Malcolmson, Islands Trust council chair, knows that BC is largely relying on the feds and the polluter-pay principle, but she believes the province must step up to the plate. “The reality is that, when the oil hits the beaches, it’s a provincial responsibility, and we feel the Ministry of Environment has ducked that,” she said.

    Minister of Environment Mary Polak has said gaps in oil spill response must be closed with the help of the federal government and industry and an Environment Ministry spokesman said the province is working with the federal tanker safety expert panel while looking at ways to beef up its own system.

    One of BC’s conditions for construction of heavy oil pipelines is a world-class oil spill prevention, response and recovery system. “We recognize the need to strengthen our policy and create world-class land-based and marine spill response and preparedness systems and one of the aspects being examined during this process is the number of environmental emergency response officers,” said the ministry spokesman.
    The province is also proposing an industry-funded clean-up model that companies would pay into ahead of time. Government and industry are now looking at the costs, he said.

    Meanwhile, the plywood cards are continuing to wash up on beaches around the region, so for each one found, think about the damage that would have been done if it was oil. Do British Columbians feel confident that, unlike in other oil spills around the world, BC is capable of cleaning up the oil before it causes catastrophic damage to a unique environment and endangered species?

    Studies similar to those conducted in Washington, taking an unvarnished look at the likelihood of spills and probable impact, would help inform discussion. And British Columbians need absolute, cash-backed assurances that industry will pick up every penny of the tab if something goes wrong. Potentially hitting the corporate bottom line may provide the best hope for minimizing the risk of disaster.

    Award-winning journalist Judith Lavoie was an environment and First Nations reporter for the Times Colonist for many years and now writes freelance stories on environmental and marine issues. Twitter @LavoieJudith.

    Edited by admin

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