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Scrutiny of Enbridge moves beyond potential spills

A group of protesters gathers outside the Northern Gateway hearings in Prince Rupert Monday.


Enbridge Inc. has long faced scrutiny for the impact its proposed $6-billion pipeline could have on northern British Columbia in the event of a spill – a likelihood the company has said is small.

Now, the company is coming under fire for how everyday operations of the Northern Gateway project, which would carry Alberta oil to the West Coast for export to California and Asia, might affect the local environment.

Documents filed by Enbridge with the National Energy Board show that the company's loading terminal, where oil tankers will dock for filling, stands to far exceed Canadian air-quality guidelines for sulphur dioxide, a substance that is a human health hazard and key component in the formation of acid rain. Data created by modelling of air quality surrounding the Gateway terminal, once it is built, show the maximum concentration of sulphur dioxide within a one-hour window will reach 4,829 micrograms per cubic metre, and an average of 839 within a 24-hour period. Federal guidelines say the "maximum desirable" levels are 450 in one hour, and 150 within 24 hours. "Maximum acceptable" guidelines are twice as high. The Enbridge documents also predict maximum particulate matter emissions that exceed British Columbia air quality guidelines.

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But at a federal hearing in Prince Rupert on Wednesday, the company, which critics have accused of basing its environmental assessment on unreliable data, argued that its documents contain information that overstated environmental impact and is no longer accurate.

"There will, in fact, not be exceedances of these ambient air quality objectives," said Peter Reid, an expert on an Enbridge witness panel.

Enbridge argued that its modelling tends to estimate emissions by three to four times their real-life values. And, it said, new rules intended to cut sulphur in the fuel that ships use near Canadian shores will bring dramatic change.

"What that does is, in essence, eliminate the sulphur problem," Mr. Reid said.

Partial modelling showed a decrease in sulphur dioxide emissions to well below federal guidelines – 171 micograms per cubic metre in a one-hour period, and 31 for 24 hours.

The problem, argued Maria Morellato, a lawyer for the B.C. Coastal First Nations, is that the new marine fuel regulations are not yet law in Canada. They were supposed to come into effect this summer; they have instead been delayed, although marine lawyers expect them to become law early in the new year. Tankers would not arrive at the Gateway terminal until 2018, if it is built.

Ms. Morellato questioned why Enbridge might include emissions estimates if it was not prepared to vouch for their accuracy. When Enbridge objected to questions about the health impacts of high sulphur dioxide levels, calling it a "hypothetical exercise," Ms. Morellato replied: "I think that's just basic natural justice and procedural fairness to let us ask these questions. This is your own evidence."

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Sheila Leggett, who chairs the joint federal review panel examining the Gateway project, sided with Enbridge. "It's the panel's understanding that the evidence you're seeking to question on has been superseded by new evidence based on changes in the law," she said.

For the Coastal First Nations, the Enbridge air-quality estimates formed part of a broader discussion on the adequacy of the company's attempts to quantify the environmental impact of Gateway alongside a series of other projects contemplated for the shores near Kitimat, B.C.

Ms. Morellato pointed to several industrial projects that have been proposed in the area, some not included in the Enbridge assessment. She said Enbridge should be compelled to measure their impact alongside its own.

"If they wish not to provide us with this information, then we'll deal with it in the courtroom. But with all due respect, this is important information the public ought to know," she said.

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