The problems with Kitimat

Gale-force winds. Thick fog. Crushing snow. Landslides. Waves the height of office buildings. The northern coast of British Columbia is a nexus of nasty elements that descend upon a place abundant in marine life - humpbacks, orcas, a buffet of shellfish - and coastal creatures, including the much-celebrated white Kermode bear, or spirit bear.

No one denies the severity of the region, not least Enbridge, which has laid in place sophisticated plans to manage it, including tugboat support for tankers, new navigation aids and even an expensive tunnelling operation that would send pipe directly through a mountain, rather than around its landslide-prone slopes. The company's plans recently won a major stamp of approval from Transport Canada, which reviewed plans for the marine routes - where tankers would sail, how fast and under which conditions - and declared them sound.

Yet those who live in the area say it is home to natural forces so violent that even the best-laid plans are prone to founder.

Getting to Kitimat

Depending on the route, it will take between 10 and 16 hours for tankers to clear the inside waters connecting Kitimat to the open ocean. Oil tankers reach Kitimat's port using one of three routes: the southern approach (in purple), which navigates the Caamano Sound; a second southern approach (in blue), which crosses around Banks Island via the Principe Channel; and a northern approach (in green). From there, tankers navigate the bends and turns of the Douglas Channel to reach the inlet at Kitimat.

Wildlife

The B.C. coast has abundant life, some of it unusual, some of it delicate, some of it threatened. Numerous marine mammals live in or go through the area that would be frequented by tanker traffic. Many of them are species of special concern to Canadians. Killer whales, fin whales, humpback whales, northern fur seals are all listed as threatened. Blue, sei and North Pacific right whales are endangered.

The region is globally important for marine birds. Land animals are also a concern. Apart from the wolves, bald eagles and other animals that live on the coast, tankers would pass parts of the Great Bear Rainforest, established in part to protect the range of the Kermode bear. The blond spirit bear, a subspecies of the black bear, is unique to this part of the world and numbers in the low hundreds.

Weather

Environment Canada, in its Marine Weather Hazards Manual, notes that "Hecate Strait is the fourth most dangerous body of water in the world." Wind gusts can reach 185 km/h - that's Category 3-hurricane strength, like Hurricane Ivan. Several times a winter, storm-force winds generate waves six to eight metres high - but waves can, on very rare occasions, reach a staggering 26 metres in Hecate Strait.

While conditions are substantially more moderate in narrower channels, the on-shore terrain the pipeline must cross is also vulnerable to extraordinary weather. In October, Caamano Sound is drenched in fog 20 per cent of the time. In winter, significant waves 3 1/2 metres high and greater occur 20 to 30 per cent of the time offshore, and 10 per cent along the coast.


Strong winds
Strong winds and waves
Heavy snow

Navigation

A recent Transport Canada study concluded the water is deep enough and the passages are wide enough. But residents are concerned about the margin for error. In four places, the route goes through channels less than two kilometres wide. At a minimum, supertankers need nearly half a kilometre in width for safe travel. They need 33 metres in depth; in one area, the route passes over a spot 35 metres deep.

There is only one place in the entire series of coastal marine routes that can adequately accommodate proposed 320,000-deadweight-tonne supertankers. Kitimat Harbour does not meet minimum anchorage requirements, and would require tug support for supertankers. Another, called the Coghlan Anchorage, is "not suitable to anchor vessels of the design vessels size, on a single anchor," according to Enbridge documents.


Approved anchor point
Emergency stop
Difficult spots to navigate

Accidents

Between 1999 and 2008, the routes Enbridge intends to use for Gateway tanker traffic experienced five major accidents in large vessels. Those include two "striking" accidents (where a ship contacts another object, like the shore or a dock), one instance of heavy weather damage, a grounding, and a grounding and a sinking. The latter is well-known: The Queen of the North lies buried deep in waters that supertankers would transit. It sank after hitting Gil Island in 2006. Two bodies were never found.

In 2009, the Petersfield, a bulk carrier sailing through Douglas Channel, also hit land after a failure in its navigation equipment. According to the Transportation Safety Board of Canada, "the vessel sustained extensive damage." Supertankers, however, remain among the safest vessels on the seas. According to the International Tanker Owners Pollution Federation Ltd., the number of large oil spills declined from 79 in the 1970s to 17 in the past decade.

Landslides

Northwestern British Columbia is home to a seismically unstable landscape assaulted by incredible amounts of rain and snow - Kitimat, for example, averages 2,387 millimetres of precipitation a year. That often creates problems. A 2005 study found 38 "large, catastrophic landslides" in northern B.C. in three decades, and noted that "the frequency of large landslides in northern British Columbia appears to be increasing, suggesting a link to climate change." The study specifically names pipelines as a type of infrastructure "at risk from these large landslides."

Underwater earthquakes are another hazard, causing localized tsunamis that have been recorded along the B.C. coast. One in Kitimat Inlet, in April, 1975, produced an 8.2-metre-high wave.

Interactive by Stuart A. Thompson
Illustrations by Matthew Bambach