Report warns of catastrophic oil spill in waters north of Vancouver Island

Conservation group states case against pipeline, coastal shipping

The AT1 Alaskan transient killer whales were in Prince William Sound during Exxon Valdez oil spill. 13 members of the 22 member pod died after the spill and more the following years. photo KH/LB-L

By Judith Lavoie, Victoria Times Colonist, March 23, 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.

What’s at Stake: The Cost of Oil on British Columbia’s Priceless Coast, a five-year study by a dozen Canadian, Scottish and U.S. scientists, was released yesterday by Raincoast Conservation Foundation on the eve of the 21st anniversary of the Exxon Valdez oil spill.

The report, which documents animal and bird populations in the area, 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.

Debate over a proposed multibillion-dollar pipeline from Edmonton to Kitimat 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 report adds fuel to ongoing controversy over the spectre of supertankers picking up oil at Kitimat and sailing through treacherous areas such as Hecate Strait and Douglas Channel.

There would inevitably be spills, said Chris Darimont, a postdoctoral 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 is unique in having 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 B.C. 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 the conservation foundation.

“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.”

Theresia Lee, Enbridge spokeswoman, said in an e-mail that the company is not granting in-depth media interviews 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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Coastal wolf with a salmon in its month.
Photo by Dene Rossouw.