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Happy 23rd anniversary, Exxon Valdez: thanks for schooling us on Enbridge!

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On a map, the waters of Prince William Sound appear much more protected than the BC coast: several islands safeguard a south facing bay. The remote BC coast has the fourth-most dangerous seas in the world and it is not accessible during winter storms. The people of Haida Gwaii know this well.

April Churchill, Vice President of the Haida Nation, stated: “The waters here are treacherous. People get stuck here all the time. The ferries don’t run, the planes turn back. If there were a spill, they wouldn’t be able to get the boats out for rescue or clean up. It would be a mess.”

Oil contamination of Prince William Sound is persisting far longer than anticipated. The last study, completed in 2001 (fifteen years after the spill), revealed 20 acres of shoreline in the study area still contaminated with oil. Subsurface pits held an oil mixture similar to that found a few weeks after the spill: smelly and fluid. Subsurface oil was found at lower tide heights than expected, in the zone of biological production. As  of 2010, an estimated 26,000 US gallons of Valdez crude oil remain in Alaska’s sand and soil. It has been found in the coastal substrate up to 450 miles away.

In sum, a damaged supertanker off the BC coast could create a larger, more toxic spill than the Exxon Valdez, and one that is much more difficult to clean up. Given the persistence of the Exxon Valdez oil along the coast of Alaska, it’s reasonable to expect that a large bitumen spill could contaminate the BC coast for half a century or more.

Experience suggests that Enbridge’s clean up funds are inadequate

Enbridge promises that there would be more than $1.4 billion available for clean up in the event of an oil spill. Sources for this funding include ship-owner's insurance, the Canada Ship Source Fund, the International Oil Pollution Fund and the Supplemental International Oil Pollution Fund, which Canada is expected to sign on to in the near future.

The Exxon Valdez clean-up cost far more than $1.4 billion. According to Exxon, it spent about $2.1 billion. The effort took more than four summers of clean up before it was called off. Some beaches remain oiled. At its peak, the clean-up effort involved 10,000 workers, 1,000 boats and about 100 helicopters and airplanes. Many believe that the winter storms did more to clean the beaches than the human effort, but that means that the oil remains in the ocean. 

With the Kalamazoo spill, Enbridge exceeded their insured clean up coverage of $600 million last fall, and now estimates that the clean-up will cost more than $720 million. Compared to spills of heavy crude oil in the US, cleaning up the bitumen has cost over 10 times that much and counting.

Given the experience of the Exxon Valdez and the higher costs of cleaning up bitumen, its reasonable to view Enbridge’s clean up resources as woefully inadequate; they could cover less than half the cost of a clean-up, even to the inadequate level provided following the Exxon Valdez oil spill.

The social costs of the Exxon Valdez oil spill

The social costs of an oil spill cannot be monetized by Enbridge estimates. After the Exxon Valdez spill, Alaskan Natives experienced the worst impacts. Their communities were severely disrupted and many experienced high levels of depression. The trauma of seeing so many animals die, the stress of loss of subsistence livelihood from the sea, the influx of clean-up money and the way Exxon handled the spill all resulted in a variety of negative social impacts.

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