By Larry Pynn
VANCOUVER — Two-tug escorts. Double-hulled tankers. Radar at critical stretches of coastline. A spill-response capability more than three times greater than now required by Transport Canada.
That, said Enbridge, is its commitment to ensure the safe movement of tankers associated with its Northern Gateway oil pipeline terminal on the British Columbia coast at Kitimat.
Critics don’t buy the assurances.
They fear a spill by even one massive tanker could wreak havoc on marine life and contaminate hundreds of kilometres of coastline.
Environmentalists opposed to the project say it creates risks that have not previously existed on B.C.’s north coast — specifically, oil-carrying supertankers navigating the same rock-shrouded channels that sank B.C. ferry Queen of the North.
Oil spills are common on the B.C. coast, but they tend to be small and involve petroleum products such as diesel fuel from vessels, which disperses relatively quickly.
Canadian Coast Guard statistics show more than 550 “marine pollution incidents” in B.C. in 2011 as of mid-December, about 27 per cent of them level-three incidents requiring “cleanup or threat mitigation measures.”
The largest spills: 2,400 litres from a pleasure craft at Port Hardy; 1,800 litres from an unidentified BC Hydro station; 460 litres from a fishing vessel at French Creek Marina near Parksville; 454 litres from an unknown source at No. 4 Road and Dyke Road in Richmond; and 400 litres each from a fishing vessel at Prince Rupert and a pleasure craft between Wallace and Saltspring islands.
That’s a far cry from the approximately 40 million litres of gooey crude oil that leaked from the Exxon Valdez after it struck Alaska’s Bligh Reef on March 24, 1989 — a disaster that continues to shape public attitudes to oil-tanker transport on Canada’s Pacific coast.
An estimated 250,000 seabirds and more than 2,500 sea otters are thought to have died in that accident.
Fourteen out of the 36 killer whales in the resident Prince William Sound pod had disappeared by 1990.
Decades later, the environmental consequences linger.
A 20th-anniversary status report by the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill Trustee Council, released in 2009, found that “oil persists in the environment and, in places, is nearly as toxic as it was the first few weeks after the spill.”
It added that the “amount of Exxon Valdez oil remaining substantially exceeds the sum total of all previous oil pollution on beaches in Prince William Sound, including oil spilled during the 1964 earthquake” and that it could take decades and maybe centuries for it to fully disappear from the sediments.
For environmentalists, the conclusion is obvious: Despite shipping advancements such as double-hulled tankers and tug escorts, the risks are just too great.
“While prevention is obviously the key ... based on history, accidents do happen,” said Katie Terhune, energy campaigner with B.C.’s Living Oceans Society.
A recent Living Oceans report highlighted two major spills from double-hulled tankers in 2010: the Eagle Otome, with a coast pilot aboard, at Port Arthur, Tex., and the Bunga Kelana 3 in the Strait of Singapore. Combined, the two tankers spilled 4.6 million litres of oil into the ocean, the report noted.
Closer to home, on Sept. 25, 2009, the 187-metre-long bulk carrier Petersfield had a malfunction with its navigational equipment in darkness and struck the west shore of Douglas Channel, an area that Northern Gateway oil supertankers would travel. The Bahamas-registered vessel sustained extensive damage but there was no pollution or injuries and the ship returned to Kitimat under its own power.Back in Alaska, in 2009 the escort tug Pathfinder ran aground on Bligh Reef — the same rock that gutted the Exxon Valdez in 1989 — while on an ice patrol. The captain had been playing video games.
“And that’s one of the most well-known navigational hazards in the Pacific Ocean,” Terhune said.
Enbridge counters that more than 11,000 tankers have been safely escorted by tugs through Prince William Sound since the Exxon Valdez spill.
Canada’s former environment minister is dubious about industry’s best-laid safety plans.
“You have to enter this with a fair dose of skepticism,” said David Anderson, the ex-Liberal MP and MLA from Victoria. “In every accident report, people said, ‘Gee, we thought it was okay.’ But it never seems to turn out the way they expect.”
Anderson has been a leading opponent of oil-tanker traffic on the B.C. coast since 1969, when he teamed up with U.S. environmentalists to challenge development of the trans-Alaska oil pipeline, a project that eventually received the go-ahead due to the Arab oil embargo of 1973.
“They hadn’t done a proper analysis of the risk,” he recalled. “The argument initially was they didn’t have to do one because the B.C. coast is outside the U.S.”
(Alaskan oil tankers avoid B.C.’s inner waters, staying well off the coast en route to refineries in the lower 48 states. Some travel through Juan de Fuca Strait to Washington state, a few kilometres south of the B.C. border.)
Anderson later served as an oil-spill adviser to the B.C. government after the Exxon Valdez spill and, three months earlier, the Dec. 23, 1988 release of about 87,400 litres of bunker C oil from the Sause Brothers barge Nestucca off Grays Harbor, Wash.
Oil from the Nestucca drifted northward with the currents, including up to the west coast of Vancouver Island as far as Cape Scott.
The oil washed up on beaches. Up to 56,000 seabirds are thought to have died. Crab, shellfish and herring were affected, along with native fishing practices.
Anderson said no one predicted the Exxon Valdez disaster or any number of recent oil spills, including the Deepwater Horizon oil-rig explosion in the Gulf of Mexico in April 2010 that killed 11 workers and released a record 750 million litres of crude oil.
“It’s easy enough beforehand to make it sound like the risks are minimal,” he said. “It’s always a cascading series of events, none of which are very likely in themselves. But they sort of multiply together.”
Of initiatives such as two-tug escorts, he stated: “There’s nothing to say those requirements are going to continue. Once you run through a couple of hundred transits with two tugs, you say, ‘Well, look, we’ve proved we didn’t need them because we haven’t used them yet.’ So you go down to one tug.”
Anderson added that any company’s culture of safety starts at the top, something that becomes more difficult with Northern Gateway’s multiple players.
That point was made painfully clear by the finger-pointing from the three companies — BP, Halliburton and Transocean — involved in the Deepwater Horizon disaster in the Gulf of Mexico.
“Corporate culture is an enormously important factor,” Anderson said.
Depending on your perspective, the Exxon Valdez is either a symbol of why oil tankers should be kept off the B.C. coast or a wake-up call that has led to much safer shipping.
In December 2010, opposition parties teamed up in the House of Commons to vote 143-138 in support of a ban on “bulk oil tanker traffic” through the Dixon Entrance, Hecate Strait and Queen Charlotte Sound off B.C.’s north coast.
The then-minority Conservative government opposed the motion.The motion passed on the same day that Parliament’s environmental watchdog declared that Canada isn’t ready to respond to a major oil spill.
Scott Vaughan, commissioner of the environment and sustainable development, said he was “troubled” by the government’s lack of readiness.
Enbridge prefers to dwell on the lessons learned from events such as the Exxon Valdez to reduce — but not eliminate — the risk of a spill and to be better prepared should one happen.
“We recognize there are no guarantees,” said Enbridge’s marine adviser, Chris Anderson.
The supertankers loading oil at Kitimat would weigh up to 320,000 dead weight tonnes — one-third greater than the Exxon Valdez — although a report by environmental groups notes that these large tankers contain almost eight times more oil than the Exxon Valdez spilled.
Enbridge counters that the risks are not greater because that ship did not have modern safety measures such as double hulls and tug escorts.
The Northern Gateway project involves both a 36-inch pipeline transporting bitumen west from Alberta to be loaded in Kitimat for export, and a 20-inch import pipeline containing condensate (which also arrives by ship in Kitimat) destined for Alberta to thin heavier petroleum products.
Enbridge environmental studies suggest that the condensate would evaporate relatively quickly, producing “short-lived toxic effects.”
It would take up to five years for the Kitimat intertidal zone to recover from a spill of 250 cubic metres of bitumen, as much as two years for condensate, Enbridge calculates.
A major bitumen spill from a tanker would be much more serious, affecting all levels of the food chain, fouling the feathers of birds, contaminating fish spawning and rearing areas, invertebrates and marine mammals.
The depth and longevity of effects would depend, in part, on the amount spilled, location and time of year.
An Enbridge study calculated that a spill of 36,000 cubic metres of bitumen — on the order of the Exxon Valdez spill — in Wright Sound would contaminate 240 kilometres of shoreline in 15 days.
It could take four years for exposed rocky shores to recover, up to 12 years for sheltered shores.
Enbridge insists it is going the extra distance to prevent such an event from happening. The company is committed to providing a two-tug escort for laden tankers — one tethered to the stern and the other positioned close by — to keep them from grounding in the event, say, of an engine or steering failure.
That would be reduced to one escort tug for ships not laden with cargo.
Escort, or rescue, tugs would also carry firefighting and spill-response equipment, and cost about $30 million each. Noting Enbridge would need at least four, Chris Anderson said the investment is “not insignificant.”
Coastal marine pilots would also board southbound ships by rope ladders from an existing pilot station at Triple Island west of Prince Rupert.
Northbound ships are another matter: Use of helicopters to transport the pilots is under discussion for the first time in B.C., either landing on a tanker or winching the pilots up and down, at Caamano Sound or Browning Entrance. Helicopters are employed to ferry marine pilots in the U.S. on the Columbia River.
Speed is also an issue. Tankers travel 14 to 16 knots at sea, but that would be reduced to eight to 12 knots through the channels of the B.C. coast to allow for better control in the event of an emergency, Anderson said.
Enbridge will also install radar in “significant areas” such as Wright Sound, where tankers might encounter cross traffic, including cruise ships plying the Inside Passage, as well as in Principe and Douglas channels, which narrow to about 1.4 kilometres off Dixon and Emilia Islands, respectively.
The company is committed to employing a spotting boat in the initial years of operation to look for congregations of marine mammals such as whales. Information from this initiative might lead to adjustments in tanker speeds and route scheduling to avoid collisions during sensitive times of the year.
Noise, ship strikes and spills are all concerns for humpback, fin and killer whales known to frequent the supertanker route proposed for the Northern Gateway project.
“Fin whales in particular are notoriously susceptible to being struck by vessels,” warned Lance Barrett-Lennard, a whale biologist with the Vancouver Aquarium. He added that high noise levels associated with tankers are “problematic” for populations still recovering from commercial whaling into the middle of the last century.
Michael Cowdell, project manager for environmental and infrastructure consultants WorleyParsons Canada, said the Northern Gateway project will add only three per cent to the amount of ship traffic reporting to the Canadian Coast Guard at Prince Rupert.
But that doesn’t tell the full story.
Supertankers servicing Northern Gateway would weigh about three times as much the largest oil tankers currently visiting Vancouver.
Enbridge expects about 220 ship calls a year to Kitimat: an estimated 25 per cent of those would range to 320,000 dead weight tonnes, 50 per cent in the range of 120,000-200,000 tonnes, and 25 per cent in the range of 80,000-120,000 tonnes.
Oil tankers in these categories do not ply the north coast waters now, meaning that even one tanker effectively represents a 100-per-cent increase over what now exists.
Tankers of about 110,000 dead weight tonnes are the largest to visit Port Metro Vancouver (29 docked in the first 11 months of 2011) while Cherry Point refinery in Washington accepts 125,000 (ton) tankers.
To better respond to a potential spill, Enbridge said it is going beyond what the federal government requires.
Transport Canada’s spill-response requirements apply to a maximum spill of 10,000 tonnes, and require that equipment and resources be on the ground and ready to go within 72 hours after notification of a spill.
Enbridge believes the standard is inadequate for the size of its project and is preparing for a worst-case spill of 32,000 tonnes, on the order of the Exxon Valdez spill. Spill response along the B.C. coast is coordinated by the industry-funded, federally licensed Western Canada Marine Response Corp.
“One of the top lessons of the Exxon Valdez, if you have response equipment in the right places that can be deployed quickly, you can help limit the consequences,” said Owen McHugh, an environmental management project manager with Stantec Consulting.
McHugh said Enbridge would ramp up the response capacity not just in Prince Rupert and Kitimat, but potentially at Shearwater on Denny Island near Bella Bella.
The company would also like to train and equip aboriginals in remote communities such as Kitkatla and Hartley Bay as first responders, but they are opposed to the project.
Regardless, maps are being prepared that identify aboriginal sites with harvesting and cultural significance.
Denny Island is also the residence of Ian McAllister, the environmentalist who coined the term Great Bear Rainforest and who now heads Pacific Wild, an organization dead set against Northern Gateway for its potential to “destroy cultures and ecosystems” on the B.C. coast.
He argued that the coast has been experiencing increasing wind storms in recent years, a pattern that poses a serious risk to supertankers and makes a spill response all but impossible. While Denny Island may be more accepting of a spill-response centre, it is too far south to be practical, he said.
“It would take even a seaworthy ocean-going tug well over 24 hours to get to a tanker in Douglas Channel.”
A three-member joint review panel will see the issues for itself when public hearings on Northern Gateway begin Jan. 10 in Kitamaat Village.
lpynn [at] vancouversun.com with research assistance from Vancouver Sun library staff
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