B.C. Spill Study Raises Alarm

Environment Canada’s “legally defensible” assessment of a British Columbia oil spill confirms fears that cabinet ignored safety in approving the Enbridge Inc. Northern Gateway project, says a B.C. legislator. The environment department proposes to study the impact of Alberta bitumen dumped on the northern B.C. coast.

“It’s as if the government is trying to give itself cover in case of a spill,” said Robin Austin, New Democrat MLA for the riding of Skeena that includes Kitimat, cite of a proposed tanker terminal to ship Alberta oil. “After claiming it is safe they now want to string out facts for the sake of liability.”

Federal researchers are quietly conducting a three-year study of the likely impact of a coastal spill, including research on “clean-up of the non-conventional diluted bitumen products on different types of shorelines.” Authorities cited a “knowledge gap” on the impact of a spill. The study is not due for completion till 2016.

The Northern Gateway project approved by cabinet last June 17 would see Alberta bitumen piped to Kitimat, then loaded onto tankers for shipment to Asian refineries. Government authorities have repeatedly insisted the venture is environmentally safe.

“They are trying to cobble together evidence to justify what they have already done,” Austin said in an interview. “This research is acknowledgment of a very high risk of a spill over the lifetime of this project.”

Austin noted the proposed tanker route through Kitimat’s Douglas Channel is virtually inaccessible except by boat and helicopter: “A spill would be absolutely disastrous,” he said. “This is very worrisome. How would you ever contemplate a bitumen clean-up under those conditions? It is impossible.”

Kitimat City Council has opposed the development of a tanker terminal, though councillors are on record as endorsing construction of a local refinery to process Alberta crude – a proposal not contemplated in the Enbridge plan.

Sticks To Everything But Water

“I’m caught by surprise,” said Kitimat Mayor Joanne Monaghan. “I don’t know what Environment Canada’s baseline study would take into account.”

Monaghan said she was unaware of the federal research. “It seems prudent to have these kinds of studies but we don’t want tankers of bitumen going down the channel,” Monaghan said. “We’ve written the Premier and the Prime Minister, but that doesn’t mean that will happen.”

An earlier federal study cautioned that heavy Alberta bitumen is difficult to clean in case of a coastal spill. The research co-authored by Environment Canada in 2002 tested diluted bitumen in different water and soil conditions to simulate a shoreline disaster.

“Coalesced bitumen is extremely adhesive and sticky,” concluded the research Orimulsion Penetration And Retention In Course Sediments; “The only material that it did not stick to readily was water.”

The research was conducted at the Marine Technology Centre in Sidney, B.C. Scientists concluded leaked bitumen would form into oily “tarballs” or “patties” when in contact with seawater, then “ooze” into pebbled beeches.

By Tom Korski

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