Stanley Park on the front lines if there's an oil spill, Wilderness Committee warns at public forum
The Wilderness Committee hosted the first of a series of public forums on Kinder Morgan's pipeline and tanker expansion last night at the Roundhouse Community Arts and Recreation Centre.
“No more rallies and protests,” Rueben George of the Tsleil-Waututh Nation told the audience at the Wilderness Committee's Stanley Park Tanker Town Hall on Thursday. “This is a time for teaching.”
George was among the many speakers who came to speak at last night's public forum about the devastating impacts a potential oil spill in the Burrard Inlet would have on Stanley Park, based on a new report. With Kinder Morgan’s plans to expand the Trans Mountain pipeline and bring 300 to 400 tankers a year through the Burrard Inlet, many locals expressed deep concern about the possibility of oil spills if tanker traffic were to increase four or five-fold from now.
George told a story of his childhood that vividly illustrated what has already been lost as a result of pollution. When he was a boy, he said, George and his family would walk along the shores of their traditional territory in North Vancouver at low tide to collect dinner, fresh from the water.
“When the tide went out, the table was set,” he told a crowd of 300 who packed into the Roundhouse Community Arts and Recreation Centre last night to hear about the danger of an oil spill.
“We’d walk out onto the waters and we’d pick up crab and harvest clams, and we would eat them.”
Today, however, that way of life is a thing of the past: industrial activity has changed the Burrard Inlet from a source of sustenance to a place filled with pollution.
Protecting the Burrard Inlet
Seeing the consequences of that pollution firsthand, George joined his first ever environmental campaign to stop the increase of tanker traffic through an environment already under stress.
Rueben George of the Tsleil-Waututh Nation
George told the crowd that he got involved in the Wilderness Committee campaign to stop tanker traffic about a year ago. He said he’s taken time away from his full time job as a director of community development to focus his energy full time on trying to halt Kinder Morgan’s proposal, to which the crowd erupted in cheers.
While adamant that Kinder Morgan’s plans to expand the Trans Mountain pipeline and increase tanker traffic are too risky, he advocated for better education and public knowledge around the issue as the best way to stop it.
Stanley Park ecosystem under stress
Stanley Park, Vancouver’s iconic outdoor playground for residents and visitors young and old, is one of the biggest and most ecologically diverse urban parks on in the world, according to the Wilderness Committee report.
“You can’t think about Vancouver without thinking about it,” Wilderness Committee campaigner Ben West said, referring to how integral Stanley Park is to the city’s identity.
Every year, 17,000 individual birds use the park, including 230 different bird species. Home to the "largest urban heron colony in the country,” the park is also a stopping spot for birds migrating between California and Alaska.
Other species, such as salmon, rely on a healthy Stanley Park, which contains one of three remaining salmon spawning streams in Vancouver. Orcas, porpoises, seals and otters have been spotted near the park feeding on creatures in the surrounding marine environment.
But despite a wealth of wildlife, the Stanley Park Ecology Society still sees reason for concern.
“The ecosystem is already under so much stress due to pollution and climate change,” said Robyn Worcester who does wildlife and habitat monitoring for the Stanley Park Ecology Society. Worcester contributed to The Wilderness Committee report, which was authored by Rex Weyler. In it she writes,
“Research has shown that off-shore sediments in Coal Harbour contain elevated levels of heavy metal and other chemical pollutants. Water quality in Burrard Inlet remains a major concern.”
The Ecology Society has for 25 years worked to monitor and rehabilitate the park’s ecosystems through conservation and education.
Worcester knows the park well. She’s been going there since she was a little kid and now works there every day.
“Everything we’ve done in the park would be jeopardized by an oil spill,” she said.
Who would you call?
The disastrous oil spill in Marshall, Michigan two years ago provides some insights into what Vancouverites would be dealing with if there was an oil spill in the Burrard Inlet, West said.
When Enbridge’s pipeline ruptured in 2010, it poured dilluted bitumen or oil sands into the Kalamazoo River. This first major spill of oil sands crude brought with it some troubling lessons on just how hard it is to clean up this tarry substance being extracted from Alberta's oil sands. During the spill, the condensate, a toxic mix of carcinogenic chemcials used to dilute the bituem,) evaporated into a toxic cloud, while the bitumen sank to the bottom of the river, making conventional cleanup tools ineffective.
Only in the last decade has Vancouver started shipping forms of diluted bitumen or oil sands through the inlet, West said. Oil had to get to $50 per barrel before it was considered economically viable.
During the Michigan oil spill, the stench was so strong people fled their homes. When they returned to collect their most precious valuables, they found their valuables so saturated iwth the stench that people often left things behind, West said.
Focusing on smells may seem trivial, he said, but it would probably be the first thing people would notice if an oil spill were to occur near Stanley Park.
“Who would you call? I don’t know. No one knows who you’re supposed to call.”
"Almost like we’re trying to make a spill happen"
With the closing of the BC oil spill centre and the Kitsilano Coast Guard, which would have been the first responder to an oil spill in the Burrard Inlet, it’s unclear how an oil spill would be handled.
Parks board commissioner Niki Sharma noted that there have been drastic changes to the environmental assessment and fisheries acts due to Bill C-38, to which people in the crowd moaned and shook their head.
“This leaves us less protected than ever before if there was an oil spill. And I don’t think that’s acceptable," Sharma said.
Before the public forum, West said that he was contacted by a coast guard official that wanted people to know that not only are several coast guard stations being shut down, but so is the marine traffic control office that makes sure boats don’t run into each other.
Ben West's presentation included a discussion of alternatives to fossil fuels and a highlighting of the book "Seven Rules for Sustainable Communities" by Patrick M. Condon.
He added that the federal Auditor General slammed Canada’s ability to handle a major oil spill in 2010, and that’s with existing tanker traffic.
“It’s almost like we’re trying to make a spill happen,” West said.
Accidents do happen
West reminded the crowd that accidents do happen, pointing out that vessels have grounded near Stanley Park in the past.
Drivers on the Lions Gate Bridge gawked at the 186-metre-long freighter loaded with grain that ran aground near Stanley Park in 2006. The grounded vessel blocked shipping traffic and when drivers slowed down to catch a glimpse, it caused a massive traffic jam.
An unknown major technical malfunction caused the vessel to steer off course and drift to the shore, witness Robert Etchell told The Province. It took two hours for the coast guard and five tugboats to pull the boat free. The hull was not penetrated but it was not known what the vessel hit.
Another vessel grounded in 1989 near Stanley Park.
Besides vessel accidents, there have also been three oil spills in Vancouver in recent years at Kinder Morgan’s facilities. In 2007, an excavator hit Kinder Morgan’s Trans Mountain pipeline in Burnaby, unleashing 224,000 litres oil. In 2009, 200,000 litres of crude oil spilled from a storage tank in Burnaby. And this year, in January, 110,000 litres of oil spilled in Abbotsford.
“We are told by some that pipelines and their corresponding tankers are the safest way to transport oil," Sharma said. "To these people I ask, how are we as residents of Vancouver supposed to be at ease, given the series of oil spills over the past few years and even in the past few months?”
Furthermore, in the event of a tanker spill in the Burrard Inlet, the city and province could be on the hook for the costs.
“One of the lessons the oil industry learned from the Exxon Valdez disaster is that they don’t want to own the boats anymore” Sven Biggs of Tanker Free BC said. “Each and every boat that comes through Vancouver harbour is a different numbered company and if there was an accident there are no assets backed up behind those for the city or property owners to go after.”
The Wilderness Committee set up an alert system for whenever a tanker enters the harbour. People text “oil” to 604-800-9180 and receive a message about once or twice a week alerting them that a tanker is filling up at Kinder Morgan’s Westridge terminal in Burnaby, where the Trans Mountain pipeline ends.
“If you start to get a text every day, you know we’re in trouble,” West said.
Against pipeline expansion
The city is committed to advocating against the expansion of the Trans Mountain pipeline and the increase of oil tanker traffic through Vancouver, Sharma said.
“I just wanted to say, because I think it needs saying, that we are not radicals, naive or unreasonable people...
“We are people with legitimate concerns about expanded oil tanker traffic in our Inlet. I would like to urge every resident in Vancouver to pay attention...We need to work together on this to prevent a disaster,” Sharma said.
Niki Sharma adressing the crowd.
The mixed-age crowd was clearly enthusiastic to take action, clapping at every mention of opposing the Kinder Morgan expansion.
“If we fail on this one, the environmental movement is going to take such a hit,” commented Yvon Raoul, a retired high school teacher from Kitsilano Secondary School. This is a war we’re fighting right now. My grandkids are going to pay for this. I have five grandchildren. Five boys. I want them to have as good a life as mine.”
Biggs acknowledged that their movement is up against some tough opponents, including the biggest oil companies in the world. But, he added,
“There are two kinds of power in the world. There’s money and there’s people.”
More public forums held by the Wilderness Committee will be scheduled in the following months.