Photo: Robert Cory

The National Energy Board’s (NEB) announcement of its approval of Enbridge’s Line 9B pipeline is generating outrage among environmental activists across Ontario and Quebec. The pipeline, already in place for nearly 40 years, has a history of leaks and the repurposing of it to carry dilbit (diluted bitumen) under high pressure is seen as an environmental catastrophe waiting to happen. Mark Mattson, an environmental lawyer and president of Lake Ontario Waterkeeper, is particularly concerned. “There are hundreds of rivers that feed into Lake Ontario. [Line 9] will be carrying dilbit, and this pipeline wasn’t made for that. It was made to carry other substances.” He goes on to add, “Line 9 is just one of many, many emerging threats to the Great Lakes.”

With more and more toxic substances being moved across waterways, Mattson is also concerned about the normalization of shipping hazardous substances by pipeline, rail and over water. “There is a certain creeping normality here, where we just keep accepting these incremental changes and Ontario isn’t looking at the larger reality.”

How Line 9 was approved

Of equal concern is the approval process. The NEB’s mandate allows it to approve projects without consultation with provinces or municipalities. In fact, most communities along the pipeline don’t even know that it exists, never mind that it will be carrying highly toxic substances, under high pressure, along a leaky 38-year-old pipeline. Created to be an independent review panel, the NEB is made up of energy industry leaders, and it no longer (if ever) operates at arms length from the government.

The NEB certainly didn’t broadcast its hearings and allowed only two weeks for individuals and groups to fill out a lengthy application to attend the hearings. Waterkeeper submitted recommendations to improve the safety of Line 9, but none of the recommendations were included in the NEB’s announced terms and conditions laid out for Enbridge. “The terms and conditions set out by the NEB are very weak, very disappointing.”

Two very basic conditions the NEB could have given Enbridge, double-insulating the pipeline where it crosses waterways and installing safety shutoff valves on either side of rivers, apparently were not considered. The NEB was not, at the time of the writing of this article, available for comment.

“There are regulations in place now that gas stations holding tanks be double-insulated and they’re not even on drinking water,” says Mattson. “I don’t know how many emergency shutoff valves they have along the six or seven hundred kilometre stretch of pipeline, but there aren’t nearly enough to even think you’re minimizing the damage (in the event of a spill).” The NEB did ask Enbridge to do hydrostatic testing for leaks and weaknesses, something that should have been done before the proposal was submitted, should have been documented for the hearings, but Enbridge is being asked to do it after the proposal has already approved, and whether or not it’s done and done thoroughly is anyone’s guess. The terms and conditions of the NEB are self-enforcing, and Enbridge has a long history of ignoring the rules at the expense of the environment.

There are some compelling reasons that independent review boards are so weak and have such narrow scope. “We’ve appointed cheerleaders for industry to the review boards,” says Mattson. Even at that, there is constant pressure from industry and government. Government sends out very clear signals to independent review boards: approve the projects we want, or you’re done.

That’s just what happened to Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission president Linda Keen. After working for years to make industry more responsible, Keen ordered a nuclear reactor shut down for safety reasons in September 2008. She was fired the next day. “It’s a very clear message, and I don’t think anyone appointed to these boards forgets it.” Community groups and activists, however, are not so easily shut down.

Who’s afraid of a big black snake?

Roberta Cory, a London, Ontario artist/activist and chair of the local chapter of the Council of Canadians, has come up with a novel way to express pipeline dissent. She built a 30 foot snake. “It was really a group effort,” says Cory. “We set up a work table at the East Village Arts Collective, and people dropped by to help over a period of three days.” When the NEB decision was made public and an emergency rally was called in Toronto for the next day, Cory had just hours to complete it. “I was up until 11 o’clock the night before the rally. Then we had to get up early on Friday to take it to Toronto.”

The 30 foot black snake is meant to represent the Line 9 pipeline, and has the words, “Enbridge: 800 spills so far, not worth the risk, protect our water, our land, our health. Stop line 9” stitched on its side. Other pipeline rallies and protests have featured giant model pipelines for visual impact, but the Council of Canadians wanted something more portable. “We came up with the black snake, and designed it to be collapsible. We needed to be able to ship it around the province, to be used at other Line 9 protests. All you need in 10 puppeteers, one at the head and nine along the body. We marched the snake around in circles throughout the Queen’s Park rally. It was a great success.” The next stop for the snake is likely to be a protest rally in Guelph.

As the snake travels the province, it will be getting the word out about Line 9 to its impacted communities. As previously mentioned, part of the reason the Line 9 proposal has made it this far is that most people don’t even know the pipeline exists, never mind that it’ll be carrying highly toxic dilbit so close to home. Here’s hoping that when the general population finds out about this disastrous plan, the shit will hit the proverbial fan.

Toronto350, the group that published the community report on Line 9, “Not Worth the Risk”, is insisting on an environmental assessment. They call the federal government, “morally bankrupt” where environment and climate policy is concerned. Given, that the Harper government is stripping Canada of environmental protection legislation faster than you can say “tar sands,” it’s abundantly clear that Ottawa has no interest in environmental protection or the potential poisoning of water, land, people and wildlife.

Meg Borthwick is a freelance writer and moderator for rabble’s discussion forum, babble.

Photo: Robert Cory

Meg Borthwick

Meg Borthwick (aka Rebecca West) is a babble moderator and has been a member of since 2001. She has a decorative liberal arts degree in Quoting Chaucer at Dinner Parties (English/Drama double...