Respect for the power of the sea

It is generally accepted that oil spills are inevitable as a result of the proposed oil terminal operation.  The effect of such spills to the biological resources, and the socio-economic effects, could be serious.”
The above statement comes directly from the environmental assessment for a proposed oil tanker route from Kitimat out Douglas Channel and to the Hecate Strait.  What I like most about it is the honesty.   The message is not cloaked in assurances or obscured by rhetoric about mitigation strategies, precautionary conditions, or safety technology.  Where oil moves, it spills.  When it does, expect the worst.

Sea lions, (Otariidae sp) after hauling out on the rocks at Garcin Rocks, Gwaii Haanas in the Great Bear Rainforest, BC.  (C) Andrew S. Wright, WWF-Canada

Most revealing about that statement, it was written 35 years ago.  This was when a marine transport safety review (called a TERMPOL review) was conducted for the Kitimat Marine Oil Terminal – then a proposal to import crude oil.  This was before the Environmental Assessment Act took over much of the responsibility for project assessment.  The purpose and scope of the TERMPOL process was then far more comprehensive, and included the authority to find proposals deficient.  Which is exactly what decision makers did in 1977, citing major weaknesses in areas ranging from oil spill response planning to site engineering to navigational assessment.  The more recent TERMPOL review for the Northern Gateway proposal notes that this is a very different creature, and it is.  Much has changed in the intervening decades in terms of engineering, technology, and operations.
But some things – like the navigational hazards posed by severe marine weather – are just as reliable today as they were in 1977.  Mariners talk about respecting the power of the sea.  And no wonder.
The Hecate Strait, through which 400+ oil tankers would traverse every year with the Northern Gateway project, demands that respect. Seas of up to 8 meters are common throughout winter, and even in more protected inner waters, rogue waves can double the maximum wave height created by the combination of gale- or storm- force winds.  These storm fronts can build quickly and combine in unpredictable ways.  Given that transit times for tankers could take up 10 to 16 hours along a route with minimal safe anchorage areas, this leaves plenty of time for a disaster to take form.  Arctic outflows can drive freezing spray in the winter months through the channels, reducing visibility and leading to rapid ice buildup on ships and escort tugs.  An Environment Canada report notes that Hecate Strait is known as “the fourth most dangerous body of water in the world”(1) and there are records of monstrous events, such as in October of 1968 the drilling rig Sedco 135F recorded seas south of Cape St. James, near Haida Gwaii, building from 3 metres to 18 metres in just 8 hours!(2)
But you don’t have to take my word for it.  Consider the open letter written by Captain Mal Walsh, of Comox, BC.  Captain Walsh’s insights into the real nature of risks with tankers deserve our careful attention.
Meanwhile, environmental regulations are being further stripped of their already limited strength, a move seemingly designed to expedite the proposed Northern Gateway project. It has become increasingly apparent that we can no longer look to our Federal Government agencies for the kind of clear and honest assessment of risk that we as Canadians, and the environment we safeguard, deserve.
Risk is a difficult subject to face, no doubt.  It takes courage to consider both facts and values and define the issue in stark, honest terms – as in the opening sentence to this blog.  But there are people – including the thousands who have signed up to share their views at the Joint Review Panel Hearings – who have the insights, the expertise, and the courage to face risk squarely and insist on doing the right thing.  The Panel is now hearing Oral Statements – short, 10-min statements from everyday Canadians, many with extensive knowledge of the geography through which this route would pass, and all with deeply rooted values connecting them to the land and sea – on whether they feel the risk is worth it.  These hearings will continue throughout the next few weeks.
I urge you to take the time in your day to tune in via internet audio-cast.  You may be inspired to share your own views on what the Great Bear means for you, and whether the risk is worth taking.
To see a schedule of Community Hearings for Oral Statements, click here.
(1) Environment Canada Marine Weather Hazards Manual , 1992, page 113.
(2) Owen S. Lange, The Veil of Chaos, Living with Weather Along the British Columbia Coast, Environment Canada, 2003, P. 160.