Oil and water cannot be allowed to mix along B.C.'s stunning coastline

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Vote No Tankers: A protest in Vancouver against oil tankers on B.C.'s northern coast earlier this month, hosted by Forest Ethics and the Dogwood Initiative. Photo: forestethics.org

Beneath Alaska, between the islands of Haida Gwaii and the northern British Columbia coast, is the wide but shallow Hecate Strait. Originally termed Seegaay by the Haida, Captain George Henry Richards, affixed the name Hecate to the strait in the early 1860s. Hecate was a Greek goddess associated with magic and crossroads, a governess of the wilderness and liminal regions where the spirits interact with the living.

The title has proved an appropriate one for the region. The north coast is unique, famous for its Kermode or spirit bears, a rare and regionally isolated white variant of the black bear that haunts the local forests. Even the woods themselves are rare, as temperate rainforests such as the Great Bear Rainforest cover less than one per cent of the earth's surface.

Between the ocean and the mountains, these rainforests are cool, shadowed realms. Beneath a canopy of red cedars, Douglas fir and Sitka spruce, lies a thick carpet of ferns, salal bushes, and devil's club. Local First Nations recognized the medicinal value and spiritual potency of the forest, and used plants such as devil's club to address a range of ailments.

The north cast seems a world away from the anesthetized pavement and cold economics of Calgary office towers, but these seeming disparate geographies are connected through the designs of a global economy. Calgary-based energy pipeline giant Enbridge has proposed routing the Northern Gateway pipeline to a marine terminal in Kitimat, B.C. Through the twin pipeline, an eastbound line would daily transmit 193,000 barrels of condensate, a petroleum byproduct used to thin crude oil for transport, while a westbound line would transport 525,000 barrels of oil daily from the Alberta tar sands. This oil would be loaded onto approximately 225 oil tankers yearly for export to overseas markets.

Oil and water

Recent events, such as the BP spill in the Gulf of Mexico, highlight the substantial risks of oil in marine ecosystems. And from Kitimat, it is only a short distance up the coast to Alaska, where the memory and the effects of the Exxon Valdez spill still linger after more than two decades. That 1989 disaster dumped 49.5 million litres of crude oil into Prince William Sound, killing an estimated 250,000 seabirds, 22 orcas, and untold numbers of fish and other marine organisms. Recent studies of the continuing impact of the Exxon Valdez disaster have highlighted how lingering oil deposits affect species over decades, compromising health, growth and reproduction through sub-lethal doses, and continuing to impair species through cascading negative effects.

Enbridge is promising state-of-the-art shipping protocols, including double-hulled vessels, radar-monitoring stations, pilot super-tugs, and first-response emergency stations located in Kitimat and communities like Hartley Bay. They suggest that the years of political and technological change have radically altered oil transport making accidents a thing of the past. However, the recent spill of three million litres from an Enbridge pipeline into the Kalamazoo River in Michigan is a powerful reminder that humans err and safety technologies fail. While there have been significant technological advances since the late 1980s, the challenges involved with a proposed port in Kitimat are also significantly higher.

At the time of the Exxon Valdez disaster, U.S. coast guard admiral Paul Yost said the 16-kilometre-wide accident site in Prince William Sound "was not a treacherous area." Few familiar with the Douglas Channel, Caamano Sound, or Hecate Strait would make such an assertion. Even experienced sailors are wary of those waters, which are susceptible to violent storms and sinister weather, particularly in the winter.

From Kitimat, the tankers would negotiate a hazardous 98- to 158-nautical-mile exit to open water (depending on the route). They would round Hawkesbury Island, Gribbell Island, Princess Royal Island, and Gil Island, where BC Ferries' Queen of the North sank in 2006. Then the tankers would either negotiate a hard turn out the Caamano Sound or navigate the Principe Channel to the Hecate Strait. Environment Canada has identified the Hecate Strait as the world's fourth most dangerous waterway. If oil tankers are allowed in these unpredictable northern waters, it will be a matter of when, not if, there will be an oil spill.

If the Hecate Strait and Douglas Channel can be malevolent, they are also vulnerable. The area is regularly visited by vital migrating populations of humpback, gray, and minke whales, as well as porpoises, orcas, and dolphins. Across the channel from the proposed tanker terminal are the Coste Rocks, one of many sites seals frequent along the tanker route. Beneath the surface is an oceanic underworld of mollusk and crustacean, plankton and seaweed, and, of course, salmon. A potential spill is an extreme risk to all these species.

A spill threatens not only the marine environment but also the fragile coastline. Salmon link the marine coast to the rivers and streams of the temperate rainforest through the pulse of their seasonal migrations. Runs of Coho, Chinook, Sockeye, Pink, Chum and Steelhead swimming upstream to spawn, bring life to the rainforest landscape. Many of the 140 wildlife species living in temperate rainforest, including wolves, bears, and eagles, rely on salmon as a source of food and the loss of vital salmon stocks and other marine foods would be devastating.

Northern residents would do little better. A spill would jeopardize the coastal seafood and recreation economy. Valued at $2.6 billion yearly by a provincial government Ocean Coordinating Committee report in April, 2007, the coastal economy provides over 45,000 jobs province-wide. Traditional sustenance economies in many communities also rely heavily on coastal resources.

However, economic measures fail to fully appreciate the cultural importance of connections to local environments. The livelihoods of coastal First Nations are intimately connected to the cycles of these fish, as they have been for centuries. The potential loss of the salmon represents more than lost economic opportunities -- although for many impoverished communities the impacts of such losses would be dire -- it represents the loss of a cultural connection to place.

These losses extend beyond the economic into the social realm. Post-traumatic stress in the wake of environmental disaster can cascade into elevated rates of unemployment, depression, alcoholism and drug abuse, divorce and suicide. Future generations are left disconnected from traditional family practices extending back countless generations.

Shifting currents

There is growing pressure to defend the north coast. In May, 2010, the Haisla and Gitga'at First Nations hosted a gathering in Kitimat, and almost 1,000 people came together in opposition to Enbridge's pipeline and its associated tanker traffic. The first public hearings of the federal panel reviewing the Northern Gateway project, were met by protests in Kitimat and Prince George.

However, the strange concoctions of global economics may be beyond the potency of local remedies. Pressuring political decision-makers and economic investors, people have held carried the message to defend the coast to protests in Vancouver and Toronto. First Nations leaders and local assemblies of concerned citizens, union organizations and municipalities, environmentalists and commercial fishermen have all called upon the federal government to institute an oil tanker ban to protect coastal ecosystems, economies, and cultures from the risk of an oil spill.

In March, 2010, the nine north and central Coastal First Nations declared, in accordance with their own laws, "oil tankers carrying crude oil from the Alberta tar sands will not be allowed to transit our lands and waters." A Mustel poll in May found public opinion in British Columbia concurred with the stance of coastal First Nations, as 80 per cent of British Columbians supported banning tankers from the North Coast. Most recently, at the beginning of October, the Union of B.C. Municipalities passed a resolution in support of a federally legislated oil tanker ban.

Politicians belonging to the reigning Conservative government are under increasing pressure to support an oil tanker ban, particularly in British Columbia. In an action facilitated by ForestEthics, North Vancouver citizens recently gave their Conservative MP, Andrew Saxton, a pipeline constructed from hundreds of postcards signed by constituents concerned about oil tanker traffic. As the Conservatives remain open to introducing tanker traffic to the north coast, the Dogwood Initiative and ForestEthics have begun a campaign calling for B.C. voters to "vote for the coast." Urging a common front in defense of this vital ecosystem, voters are being encouraged to remember their ABCs (Anyone But Conservatives) when the next election arises.

In response to this pressure from potentially-impacted communities the federal Liberals and NDP have pledged support for a ban on oil tanker traffic along the North Coast. Finn Donnelly, NDP MP for New Westminster-Coquitlam, has submitted a private members bill to ban tanker traffic. In June 2010, Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff announced his party supports a ban on oil tankers in north coast waters. The Conservatives remain the only federal party that does not support an oil tanker ban.

Instead, the Conservatives remain wed to an antiquated vision of Canada's future centred upon oil export. Considering the possibility of hundreds of supertankers loaded with as 300-million litres of crude oil navigating treacherous northern waters, Harper has proved unable to gage that the risk is simply too great. However, the hope blossoms that the growing discord over this dangerous proposal will lead the government to rethink its stance, or at least unseat the Conservatives for politicians willing to heed the voice of their constituents.

Tyler McCreary is a third-generation B.C. resident, born and raised in the Northwest. A PhD student in geography at York University, Tyler is currently conducting research on cross-cultural coalitions around environmental and development issues in the northwest of British Columbia.

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