When a deep ocean tug called the Pathfinder lost its way in Prince William Sound one day this winter, it ended up running aground on Bligh Reef, the same ragged line of rocks that 21 years earlier had gutted the Exxon Valdez.
The accident didn't cause a lot of damage - no one was injured and only 33,500 gallons of light diesel were spilled - but it raised alarms because the tug was part of a fleet assigned to safely escort oil tankers through Alaskan waters.
Somehow a boat meant to prevent accidents had hit what U.S. Senator Mark Begich of Alaska noted was "one of the most well-marked and well-known reefs in the northern hemisphere."
It is because of accidents like that, and the dark spectre of the Exxon Valdez disaster which still haunts the West Coast, that Premier Gordon Campbell finds himself on a collision course with a powerful coalition of aboriginal groups over a proposed multibillion-dollar pipeline.
Although first nations are fighting several big resource projects in British Columbia, the conflict over the Enbridge Northern Gateway pipeline is developing into an overarching issue that is about to thrust the province into the international spotlight.
"It's going to be bigger than Clayoquot Sound," predicted Vicky Husband, who has been one of B.C.'s leading environmental voices for the past 30 years.
Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., described the 1993 fight to stop clear-cut logging in Clayoquot Sound on Vancouver Island as "the flashpoint in one of the defining environmental battles of our time." Ms. Husband says the Enbridge dispute may be the defining battle for a new generation concerned about climate change and global dependence on oil.
"When you think of the optics of this - first nations fighting to stop oil tankers from penetrating the Great Bear Rainforest carrying dirty crude from the tar sands - it's not going to be hard to draw support from Europe and all around the world," she said.
Ms. Husband was one of the few non-native speakers who addressed a news conference earlier this week in which the Coastal First Nations, a coalition representing nine tribes and villages, issued a declaration against the pipeline.
"I haven't seen anything like that - ever," she said of the broad solidarity shown by first nations.
More than 150 bands endorsed the declaration, which states: "We will not bear the risk to these lands and waters caused by the proposed Enbridge Northern Gateway pipeline and crude oil tanker traffic."
Art Sterrit, executive director of the Coastal First Nations, said the organization has been overwhelmed by the response.
"I mean we were blown away by the support," he said. "We did a bit of a campaign to get people to sign on to a newspaper ad [which ran in The Globe and Mail this week]and the next thing we knew we had 150 first nations and all these people…We're a bit humbled by the amount of support we got."
Margaret Atwood, David Suzuki, Thomas Berger (one of B.C.'s pre-eminent legal figures and former head of the Mackenzie Valley pipeline inquiry), Bruce Cockburn and Willie Mitchell (a star defenceman for the Canucks) were among the individuals signing on.
Greenpeace, World Wildlife Fund, Pembina Institute and the Federation of BC Naturalists offered support, as did 45 businesses, including the Patagonia clothing line.
"My phone hasn't stopped ringing," said Mr. Sterrit who says 10 Olympic athletes, including speed skater Kristina Groves, snowboarder Justin Lamoureux and moguls skier Kristi Richards, have vowed their backing .
The Enbridge pipeline project would stretch all the way from north of Edmonton to the coastal B.C. community of Kitimat, where it would deliver 525,000 barrels of petroleum a day from the oil sands to super tankers. The vessels would transit Douglas Channel, before entering the open waters of Hecate Strait, east of Haida Gwaii.
That part of the coast lies right in the heart of the Great Bear Rainforest, a vast stretch of old-growth timber which has largely been set aside by the B.C. government because of its remarkable environmental values, including its rare white bears.
Mr. Sterrit said the Coastal First Nations will not put that area at risk. "An oil spill there would be devastating to the environment," he said. "It would literally wipe out all of our cultures. And we know it is not a question of if, but when there would be an oil spill."
Grand Chief Edward John, an executive member of the First Nations Summit, said there are shipping accidents on the coast every year to remind people of the risks - and no one has forgotten the Exxon Valdez, which dumped 38,800 tons of crude oil into Prince William Sound.
"We have the Queen of the North [a BC ferry that sank at the entrance to Douglas Channel in 2006]still under water, leaking oil. There are other examples of ships running into islands or striking reefs," he said.
Although Mr. Sterrit has expressed optimism the government will acknowledge the concerns of first nations and cancel the Enbridge project, Mr. John is not so sure. He noted that Mr. Campbell responded to the native declaration by saying he wants to see the Enbridge proposal complete National Energy Board hearings, which begin soon.
"The pipeline is in environmental assessment … and when that's complete, then you are in a position where you can make a decision. You don't make a decision on a project before it's begun, you make a decision on a project when the process is complete," Mr. Campbell said. He also stressed the project will bring billions of dollars of investment into the province and create thousands of jobs.
"We do need jobs and work for sure in our communities," Mr. John said. "But … first nations have looked at this very carefully and said the risks outweigh the benefits. The Premier should respect that - instead he has said, 'We need to put this through the process' and in doing that he sent the wrong message. I think he's signalled he thinks this should go ahead … and I fear that right now things are going down the road towards confrontation."
Jennifer Varey, senior manager of corporate communications for Enbridge Inc., said it would not be appropriate to give media interviews with the National Energy Board hearings so close at hand. But she did provide a brief statement saying Enbridge has spent more than two years meeting with communities along the route. The company has also established five community advisory boards and is continuing its outreach efforts.
"It's important to note that the Enbridge Northern Gateway Project will be required to undergo a comprehensive and rigorous regulatory review process to ensure the project is in the interest of the Canadian public," Ms. Varey wrote. "That is the highest level of regulatory scrutiny an economic development project can receive."Report Typo/Error