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Wade Davis is an anthropology professor and the BC Leadership Chair in Cultures and Ecosystems at Risk at the University of British Columbia. Tom Rafael is a retired lawyer. Both live on Bowen Island, at the mouth of Howe Sound.


Woodfibre LNG Ltd. has proposed the construction of a liquefied natural gas facility at the head of Howe Sound, a scenic fjord beloved by British Columbians, especially those of the Lower Mainland.

Opposition to the project to date has largely focused on whether the province should return industry to a waterway that has only recently, and at great expense, been cleaned up. Having finally stanched the flow of heavy metals from the Britannia copper mine, do we want to allow LNG tanker traffic in a fjord being repopulated with herring, salmon, orcas and humpback whales? Every municipality on Howe Sound has passed resolutions opposing the proposal.

The project is under review by the B.C. Environmental Assessment Office, whose formal mandate is to give "full and fair consideration to all interests." The EAO is obliged to examine Woodfibre's proposal for, among other concerns, all potential adverse health effects. To do this, the assessment office is expected to consider technical studies that might identify significant adverse impact – reasons, in effect, to deny an application.

Supporters of Woodfibre maintain LNG is perfectly safe. We beg to differ. In its liquid state (-162 C), methane does not burn. An LNG spill on land could be a non-event. But a spill over water presents an entirely different and potentially dangerous scenario.

After the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, the U.S. Department of Energy commissioned Sandia National Laboratories to undertake the first scientific assessment of risks associated with LNG tankers. The research focused on LNG spills over water. The Sandia reports (2004, updated in 2008) provide the foundation for the U.S. Coast Guard's current position on LNG safety, and how it evaluates risks associated with LNG marine traffic.

The science demonstrates that LNG spills over water can result in liquefied gas mixing with water vapour; this creates a cloud that, being heavier than air, will not evaporate instantly but spread over the ocean and adjacent lands. As it disperses, mixing with surrounding air, the concentration of natural gas diminishes. When it reaches 15 per cent, the vapour cloud becomes highly flammable.

The Sandia reports suggest two haunting scenarios. After an accident, the gas could ignite and burn in the immediate area of the spill – a pool fire. In the absence of an immediate "ignition event," the LNG could disperse as a vapour cloud, spreading more than a mile from the spill, covering ocean and land until it encounters an ignition source and sparks a conflagration.

While the Sandia reports acknowledge that such "unignited" vapour clouds are unlikely, the fact that they are possible led the U.S. government to place fundamental risk-management controls on all LNG tanker traffic and new facilities. According to these, the route from any shore facility to international waters must be carefully mapped, taking into account three zones.

The first zone extends 500 metres on each side of the tanker's route, the area in danger of a pool fire. The second extends 1,600 metres on either side, the distance an unignited vapour cloud released in an accidental spill could spread and be ignited elsewhere. The third zone extends a total of 7,000 metres to reflect the larger size of the vapour cloud that would be created by a terrorist attack. By law, proponents of any new LNG facility in the United States must identify any population centres and any residential or commercial districts, including schools, hospitals and churches, found within the outer perimeter of these zones along the entire tanker-transit route. In the event a vapour cloud is ignited, everything in these zones could be incinerated.

Woodfibre's proposed tanker route extends from the head of Howe Sound south past the shores of West Vancouver. If the U.S. risk-assessment criteria were applied, significant parts of West Vancouver, Bowen Island and other Howe Sound communities, home to tens of thousands of people, would fall within the hazard zones as delineated by the U.S. Coast Guard. If the Woodfibre project were in play in the United States, it would be rejected on the basis of risk assessment and safety alone.

Canada, unlike the United States, has no regulations concerning the positioning of LNG facilities and the tanker routes that serve them. But this does not absolve the B.C. government, and its agent the EAO, from its primary obligation to look after the safety of its citizens.

There may be places along the B.C. coast where LNG facilities can be safely established. But Howe Sound is not one of them.

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