Around Vancouver alone, it has more than five times the skimming capacity it needs for a 63,000 barrel spill.
“This coast is, I would say, in pretty good shape right now,” says Kevin Gardner, president of the response organization.
Living with the line
Derek Corrigan, mayor of the Vancouver suburb of Burnaby, does not like the oil industry. He doesn’t like how its big multinational players seem unusually capable of profit. He doesn’t like how its sweeping size and importance gives it influence with government. And he doesn’t like how it is looking to build a pipeline through his hometown, where he has served as mayor for a decade.
“Not for a moment do I trust this industry,” he says. “Early on, the promises are wonderful and the infrastructure is new.” But give it a few years and companies, he says, begin to “slack off.”
Mr. Corrigan has first-hand experience. He was mayor when a city contractor hit Kinder Morgan’s pipeline, resulting in a geyser that sprayed out nearly 1,500 barrels of oil, some of which made it into Burrard Inlet. A report by the Transportation Safety Board of Canada found that the pipe had not been properly located for the city and, while the blame did not fall entirely on Kinder Morgan, the company compounded the resulting rupture by shutting the wrong valve when it tried to halt the leaking.
In 2009, oil also spilled from a Kinder Morgan oil terminal in Burnaby; Environment Canada said the government does not know how much leaked.
For those who live along the pipeline, those accidents provide a glimpse into a possible future that terrifies them. Local groups have pointed to studies questioning Canada’s spill response – a Canadian cleanup fund has half the money contained in its U.S. counterpart, for example, and though the Canadian Coast Guard is supposed to be the lead federal agency in responding to spills, many of its vessels aren’t equipped with spill gear. While the tug requirements are strict in Vancouver harbour, they are less strict outside of the harbour than in U.S. waters just to the south. Recent government changes haven’t helped, either: a Vancouver-based Environment Canada emergency response office was closed and its responsibilities shifted to Montreal, fact that concerns spill responders.
And both Canadian and international laws place strict limits on financial liability for spills from tankers, whose owners – usually headquartered in distant countries – are held responsible. Those limits vary by product and vessel, but top out at just over $1.3-billion, far below the cost of cleaning up major accidents like the Exxon Valdez or the BP Macondo well – and even a smaller accident could prove immensely costly to clean alongside densely populated Vancouver.
That concern has driven an increasingly concerted effort by first nations to thwart the project. The final stretches of Trans Mountain cross particularly tricky territory, claimed by four first nations. Three have already publicly opposed the expansion, including, the Tsleil-Waututh Nation, whose land lies across Burrard Inlet from the Kinder Morgan dock and whose front yards look out on the water where tankers anchor. It is not a nation opposed to development: it has profited from hundreds of condominium units built on its one-mile-square reserve. But the last two Kinder Morgan spills have sent a pungent smell over Tsleil-Waututh land – and the nation, which stands to see no benefits from the expansion, is firmly against it.
If a spill happens, it could devastate “the coastline from Washington to the top of Vancouver Island,” says Ernie George, director of Treaty Lands and Resources. He points to dozens of projects undertaken by the nation to restore ecosystem function and marine life populations to the area.
“We’re trying to bring this inlet back to life,” he says. More oil “won’t help.”