Last week, a pair of American environmentalists toured across the northwest of British Columbia sharing their experiences with Enbridge pipelines. Organized by a coalition of local environmental groups, the duo travelled throughout the region as part of the Think Pipeline speakers series, sharing stories related to the environmental impacts of Enbridge pipeline construction and spills.

In Smithers, the fourth stop on the tour, Erin O’Brien, an employee with the Wisconsin Wetlands Association, discussed the environmental impacts of an Enbridge pipeline construction in 2007, and the regular violation of promises made in the environmental assessment process. The 2007 Wisconsin project consisted of a dual pipeline, with one line carrying crude bitumen and a second smaller line returning condensate to dilute the bitumen for pipeline transport.

O’Brien stated that her organization was not actively involved in trying to block the pipeline because it was more inevitable than the proposed Northern Gateway pipeline. There was already an existing pipeline infrastructure in the state, the first having been constructed in 1968, and the 2007 pipeline was simply a 515 km addition to existing easements. Thus, her organization sought to ensure that the pipeline was built responsibly, in line with existing conditions of government approvals.

O’Brien, however, noted that even construction according to approved permits involved significant environmental impacts. Pipeline construction involves the creation of a substantial temporary workspace as the permanent easement corridor for the pipeline is built. In the case of the 2007 Wisconsin pipeline, between 20 to 40 m of temporary workspace was allotted in addition to the 24 m permanent corridor where the pipes were being laid. Further, the dual lines crossed 242 rivers and 119-km of wetlands. O’Brien stated, “the impacts to wetlands included direct trenching through about 146-hectares and construction traffic through another 364.” The project entailed tree removal from 768-hectares, including 186 wooded-wetland conversion.

However, as O’Brien outlined, there were further substantial impacts that extended beyond the confines of the permitting Enbridge had received. She described pipeline construction as “inherently messy.” While Wisconsin has some of the toughest environmental monitoring in the United States, this heightened scrutiny only served to highlight the regularity of violations of Enbridge’s construction permits.

O’Brien discussed the literally hundreds of permit violations that occurred over the course of the pipeline construction, and the repeated failure of Enbridge and the various contractors it worked with to ameliorate routine problems, such as soil erosion, mixing undersoil and topsoil, and the destruction of lands outside the confines of their permitted temporary workspace. This despite the fact in many cases permit compliance required acts as basic as driving hay bales into the ground to maintain banks during construction, and simply maintaining a separation of soil piles.

The violations were not specific to a particular terrain or predominantly associated with any one of the four contractors Enbridge worked with on the project. Rather they were endemic across the pipeline corridor. Enbridge and the various contractors it worked with failed to respond to repeated state interventions highlighting violations problems. As a result the Department of Justice eventually decided to prosecute Enbridge for its numerous and widespread permit violations.

Enbridge eventually settled the case for $1.1 million, the second largest settlement of its kind in Wisconsin history. However, the environmental destruction already occurred, and even the significant value of the settlement was likely well below the cost savings that Enbridge and its contractors realized through systematically failing to abide by the conditions of its permits.

The second presenter was Beth Wallace, who works with the National Wildlife Federation and also grew up in Battle Creek, Michigan, an area devastated by the Enbridge spill into the Kalamazoo River earlier this year. Despite Enbridge’s claims to instantaneous response and infallible monitoring, it took 18 hours from when the alarms went off for the spill to be located. Further the spill was not even located by Enbridge employees but locals. This time delay partially resulted from the fact the incident occurred at night, but also involved substantial human error.

Describing the centrality of the Kalamazoo River for locals as part of their environs, and a recreation site for boating, fishing, and swimming, Wallace lamented how, “the river is currently on a no contact order, at least until next year.” A series of powerful images provided audience members with a potent sense of the impact on the local environment.

Further, Wallace described the both laggard and lacklustre wildlife rehabilitation efforts Enbridge put in place, and the failure of the company and its subcontractors in the clean-up to protect the safety of its workers. Wallace showed repeated images of ill-equipped workers waist-deep in polluted waters lacking necessary safety equipment. Thus, while Enbridge regularly touts how it creates jobs, people need to question the impact of these jobs on both the environment and workers themselves.

Enbridge is currently proposing to build the Northern Gateway project consisting of two pipelines from the Albertan oil sands through to Kitimat — one to deliver the oil to port and the other to transport condensate to the oil sands. Wallace urged northwest residents in thinking about this pipeline to consider the experiences of the Kalamazoo.

From Nov. 29 until Dec. 5, the Think Pipeline tour gave presentations in 8 communities, including Prince George, Vanderhoof, Houston, Burns Lake, Smithers, Terrace, Prince Rupert, and Kitimat. The sponsor organizations included Friends of the Wild Salmon, Sea to Sands Conservation Alliance, Friends of Morice Bulkley, SkeenaWild, Northwest Watch, Douglas Channel Watch, and Prince Rupert Environmental Society.

Tyler Shandro during a June 25 news briefing. Image: Alberta Newsroom/Flickr

Tyler McCreary

Tyler McCreary is an Indigenous solidarity activist based in northern British Columbia. He is also currently working towards his PhD in geography at York University.