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First Nations canoes arrive on Lyell Island in Haida Gwaii on Thursday August 15, 2013. A piece of plywood washed up there the first week of February, 2014, almost 1,000 kilometres from where it was dropped, shows the potential devastation from an oil spill, according to environmental groups opposing pipeline expansion and tanker traffic.DARRYL DYCK/The Canadian Press

A small piece of plywood that washed up in Haida Gwaii shows the potentially massive reach of an oil spill in the Salish Sea, say environmental groups studying the risks associated with Kinder Morgan's proposed expansion of its Trans Mountain pipeline.

In October, the Raincoast Conservation Foundation and the Georgia Strait Alliance dropped more than 1,000 "drift cards" – four-by-six-inch pieces of bright, yellow plywood, each with a unique serial number – along the oil tanker route that runs from Burrard Inlet, through the Gulf and San Juan islands, and into the Strait of Juan de Fuca.

A message on each card says, "This could be oil," and asks anyone who discovers it to contact the groups and plot the card on an interactive map. From there, researchers can make inferences on oil spill trajectories based on the card's start and end points and the time it took to travel.

Not surprisingly, many people reported finding the cards on the shores around Vancouver Harbour, southern Vancouver Island and the Gulf and San Juan islands. But last week, one washed up in Tlell – a tiny community on the east coast of Haida Gwaii about 1,000 kilometres from where it was dropped.

The man who found it e-mailed researchers a photo of the card, along with a short note: "Hello from Haida Gwaii! I found your card on my walk today. I found card No. 26 at 10:20 a.m. near Wiggins Road in Tlell."

The $5.4-billion Trans Mountain pipeline project would see Kinder Morgan nearly triple the capacity of its pipeline, which for 60 years has moved oil from Alberta across B.C. to a loading facility in Burnaby on Burrard Inlet. Tanker traffic would increase to 34 loadings a month from five. Ross Dixon, policy and program manager at Raincoast, said the card's journey confirms what researchers had suspected: In the event of an oil spill, it would be difficult, if not impossible, to know exactly where the oil would go.

"It's really not an exaggeration to say the whole coast is at risk, because these things are totally affected by ocean and surface currents," Mr. Dixon said. "You can see how this one little card has travelled all the way out of the Strait of Juan de Fuca, up the west coast of Vancouver Island and then back east to land eventually in Haida Gwaii. It tells us that everywhere that that card passed is potentially at risk as well."

Card number 26 has further significance, Mr. Dixon continued. Under changes to the National Energy Board Act in the summer of 2012, people who want to participate in hearings on a proposed pipeline project must prove to the board's satisfaction they would be "directly affected" if the project is approved or rejected.

"This finding in Haida Gwaii really highlights that anyone with an interest in B.C.'s coast could be directly affected by a marine spill – [not just] people who live along the tanker route or who live along the [Trans Mountain] pipeline route," Mr. Dixon said.

Wednesday was the last day to apply to participate in the hearings. As of Wednesday afternoon, it appeared that about 2,000 individuals and groups would sign up by the 11:59 p.m. MST deadline.

Kennedy Stewart, the NDP MP for Burnaby-Douglas, on Monday requested the National Energy Board extend the public application process, noting constituents have not been adequately informed about a possible alternate route being considered by Kinder Morgan. Mr. Stewart had not received a response by late Wednesday.

By late Wednesday afternoon, 16 cities – including Vancouver, Surrey, Burnaby, Victoria and Abbotsford – as well as the Province of B.C., had applied for intervenor status.

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Scroll down for a photo of the drift card and a map showing the location where it was found.

According to researchers from the Raincoast Conservation Foundation and the Georgia Strait Alliance, although most so-called drift cards have washed up in the Salish Sea where they were "spilled" to represent oil, one has been found off Haida Gwaii.