Gov’t Plans For B.C. Oil Spill: Must Be “Legally Defensible”

Environment Canada is conducting a “legally defensible” study on the potential impact of a disastrous oil spill off the northern coast of British Columbia. The research comes four months after cabinet approved an Enbridge Inc. proposal to ship Alberta bitumen by tanker from Kitimat, B.C. on assurance it’s safe.

“The government is now admitting to what we all know: there will be a spill,” said Nathan Cullen, New Democrat MP for Skeena-Bulkley Valley, B.C. “The arrogance of this is incredible to me.” Environment Minister Leona Aglukkaq did not comment. The mayor of Kitimat declined an interview.

The $6 billion Northern Gateway project would see oil sands bitumen piped 1,200 kilometres from Bruderheim, Alta. to Kitimat for loading at a tanker terminal. Documents reveal Environment Canada last year began research on “oil spill contamination of shorelines” typically found in northern B.C., and now seeks technical expertise to complete the work by 2016.

“The objective of this work is to deliver both operational guidance and scientific information that is legally defensible and credible,” the Department of the Environment wrote in a notice A Meso-Scale Study Of The Chemical Fate, Penetration & Retention Of Diluted Bitumen & Diluents On Experimental Marine Shorelines Representative Of Northern British Columbia. The research will “examine several specific topics related to the environmental impact and detection of diluted bitumen on marine shorelines typical of those found in northern British Columbia”. Researchers will:

  • •“gather and assess baseline environmental scientific information on selected northern British Columbia shorelines”;
  • •“conduct studies on fate, behaviour and clean-up of the non-conventional diluted bitumen products on different types of shorelines”;
  • •“address concerns and knowledge gaps associated with unconventional petroleum products such as diluted bitumen”.

Recalls The Exxon Valdez

Cabinet approved the Northern Gateway project June 17 amid protests and litigation from First Nations and environmental groups. Government members have repeatedly insisted the venture is safe. “We have been clear,” B.C. Conservative MP Mark Strahl yesterday told the Commons; “Projects will only proceed if they are proven safe for Canadians and safe for the environment.”

Strahl, MP for Chilliwack-Fraser Canyon, B.C., would not speak to reporters outside the Commons.

“Stop this madness,” said Cullen. “The government was willing to approve this pipeline without knowing what a spill of diluted bitumen will do to the coast of B.C. They are putting our livelihoods on the line without an inkling of the impact of what they’re proposing.”

Cullen earlier introduced a private bill C-628 An Act To Amend The Canada Shipping Act to ban large commercial tanker traffic off the northern B.C. coast. The most recent British Columbia marine oil disasters were the 2006 sinking of the ferry Queen Of The North with 1,800 barrels of oil aboard, and a 1988 wreck of the barge Nestucca that spilled 7,000 barrels of oil on Vancouver Island’s shores.

“Bitumen sinks,” Cullen said in an interview. “It’s much more tenacious in the environment, much more toxic and impossible to clean up. Thirty years after the Exxon Valdez spill you can scrape a few rocks off the beach and oil water will still be found.” The 1989 spill in Alaska’s Prince William Sound cost some $3.5 billion in clean-up costs, legal fees and court settlements.

The federal cabinet earlier lifted a liability cap on compensation from tanker spills under the Ship-Source Oil Pollution Fund. The previous cap fixed compensation for a catastrophic spill at a maximum $1.36 billion. Recovery costs would now be fully met by the Government of Canada and financed by fees on oil shippers.

By Tom Korski

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