Oil spill would devastate BC wildlife: report

Fragile Ecosystems

Judith Lavoie, Financial Post Tuesday, March 24, 2010

Whales, wolves, bears and birds would be devastated by an oil spill in the waters north of Vancouver Island and off Haida Gwaii, says an extensive new study.  Photo: Chris Darimont, Raincoast.org

The extent of a simulated oil spill is marked in dark grey


VICTORIA — Whales, wolves, bears and birds would be devastated by an oil spill in the waters off Vancouver’s coast, says an extensive new study released a day before the anniversary of one of the world’s most devastating human-caused environmental disasters.

The findings of a five-year study by a dozen Canadian, Scottish and U.S. scientists was released by the Victoria-based Raincoast Conservation Foundation Monday — just one day before the 21st anniversary of the Exxon Valdez oil spill.

An alliance of nine B.C. First Nations also marked the calamitous date Tuesday by vowing to fight a proposed multibillion-dollar pipeline slated to carry petroleum from oilsands in central Alberta to Kitimat, B.C., a small community on the inland edge of Queen Charlotte Sound.

“We will protect ourselves and the interests of future generations with everything we have, because one major oil spill on the coast of British Columbia would wipe us out,” Gerald Amos, director of Coastal First Nations, said in a media statement.

Debate over the dual-pipeline project from Edmonton to Kitimat — a distance of 1,170 kilometres — is heating up as Enbridge Northern Gateway Pipelines prepares for an application to a federal joint-review panel. The company hopes to start building the pipeline by 2012.

The Raincoast report — entitled What’s at Stake: The Cost of Oil on British Columbia’s Priceless Coast — adds fuel to the ongoing controversy over the prospect of supertankers picking up oil at Kitimat and sailing through treacherous areas north of Vancouver Island, such as Hecate Strait and Douglas Channel.

Documenting animal and bird populations in the area, it paints a grim picture of how fragile B.C. ecosystems could be destroyed by a spill that would affect land-based animals as well as those in the ocean.

And spills would be inevitable, said Chris Darimont, a post-doctoral fellow at the University of California, one of the report’s authors. “Scientists have examined dozens of these catastrophic oil spills over the last decades and are able to predict the rate above a certain threshold,” he said.

The coastline has thousands of islands and dozens of inlets; along 900 kilometres of coast, there is 27,000 kilometres of shoreline, Darimont said.

That means the problem would extend far beyond whales and seabirds because oil would contaminate areas where land meets the ocean, where land-based species forage, Darimont said.

“The oil would penetrate into terrestrial systems (and affect) everything from deer mice to flagship species like wolves and bears,” he said.

While the company is promising double-hulled ships, custom-built supertugs and experienced pilots, Darimont said the problem is almost always human error. He pointed to the fate of the BC Ferries vessel Queen of the North, which ran aground and sank in the area, despite having the most modern navigation and safety equipment.

Fragile ecosystems along the north and central coasts are already struggling, with disappearing salmon runs and whale and sea otter populations just starting to recover after being hunted to the verge of extinction, the report says.

“The proposed tanker route goes directly through an area that has been proposed as critical habitat for (threatened) northern resident killer whales,” said Chris Genovali, of Raincoast.

“Both the risk of ship strike and of chronic oiling or a catastrophic oil spill need to be considered when evaluating whether or not we allow the oil and gas industry to expand.”

Meanwhile, a coalition of 150 groups and individuals — including such prominent Canadians as David Suzuki, Margaret Atwood and Neve Campbell — also took aim at Enbridge Tuesday by commemorating the Exxon Valdez disaster in a full-page ad in the Globe and Mail.

A caption over a photo of the infamous spill read: “This was Exxon’s gift to Alaska. B.C. can expect the same from Enbridge.”

Theresia Lee, an Enbridge spokeswoman, said in an e-mail that the company is not granting media interviews right now because it is in the final stages of preparing its application to the joint-review panel.

“The appropriate forum for us to respond to views or opinions will be through the joint-review panel process,” she said.

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