When the sun shines, it brings to life a stunning vista of snow-capped mountains and deep ocean inlets that surround the northern British Columbia town of Kitimat.
But in a place that could one day serve as a nexus for sending Canadian oil-sands crude to Asia and California, the imposing scenery is often matched by savage winds, earthquakes, avalanches and deluges of precipitation that set loose rock and mud slides.
It is not a simple place to put the terminus of a pipeline – a point that opponents of the Northern Gateway project sought to bring home on Wednesday before a federal review panel seeking public input in hearings that began this week in northern B.C.
Amid the raucous debate inspired by Northern Gateway, which has drawn the ire of some first nations and environmental groups, the forbidding geography of northern British Columbia stands to pose enough risks that the pipeline and tanker plan should be reconsidered.
“It is dangerous, to say the very least,” said Dieter Wagner, an avid sailor. Prior problems, he added, “should convince any reasonable person that this is an insane route to take.”
Those who spoke at the hearings on Wednesday drew on decades of experience in the area to question how a pipeline, and the supertankers it would fill, could operate safely in such severe conditions.
Heavy snow often blankets the area. The Canadian snowfall record was set in Premier, B.C.: 146 centimetres – nearly five feet – in 24 hours. Premier is in the same climatic zone as Kitimat, where locals have seen as much as 120 centimetres fall in a day. Residents asked how Enbridge , the project’s builder, would get to a pipeline leak buried under all that snow.
Of equal concern was the stability of the ground. Part of the pipeline’s final route into Kitimat would pass through an area with clay soil that has been known to trigger major landslides. In 1962, a slide took out 600 metres of the highway to Kitimat and left bulldozer-swallowing fissures, some four metres wide and 10 metres deep. Earthquakes occasionally trigger submarine landslides that set off local tsunamis.
The marine environment at the surface can be equally brutal. Some tankers would traverse Hecate Strait, which Environment Canada ranks as the fourth most dangerous body of water in the world. Waves in South Hecate Strait have reached 26 metres – the height of a seven-storey building.
“The storms here are so continual and so severe that it’s a recipe for disaster,” said Murray Minchin, a Canada Post delivery worker in Kitimat who is a kayaker and landscape photographer.
Tankers would travel through narrow rock-lined narrow passages where several major vessels have foundered – including the B.C. ferry Queen of the North.
However, weather is gentler in those tight passages – and even in South Hecate Strait, waves greater than six metres are seen only about 2 per cent of the time. And as bad as the weather is on the West Coast, it is not Canada’s worst. The wind and waves are even stronger on Newfoundland’s Grand Banks, an area that has already seen the construction of massive oil infrastructure. It’s where numerous oil platforms, including Hibernia, are situated.
Enbridge has pledged tugboat support of oil tankers, and committed to installing additional weather and navigational aids to ensure their safe travel. The company has said the passages, while narrow, are far larger than what is required by law. It has also planned extraordinary measures to seek safe ground: The twin Gateway pipelines would pass through a mountain tunnel created to shield the pipe in the most landslide-prone areas.