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Kinder Morgan pummeled on oil spill risks at North Van meeting

North Vancouver district’s council chambers were overflowing Thursday night as residents grilled panelists about the Trans Mountain pipeline. Proposed developments could send hundreds of oil tankers past the district’s shorelines each year.

Most people came for answers from Kinder Morgan, the company seeking to twin their existing pipeline from Edmonton to its Burrard Inlet terminus in Burnaby.

Kinder Morgan’s representative, Michael Davies, was not in an enviable position.

The questions from the audience weren’t simple questions about the project specifics. Instead, most were testing the oil transporter’s stance on various environmental aspects of the plan. Many were asking what would happen in the case of an oil spill, and how prepared Kinder Morgan and relevant government bodies are to clean it up.

Alongside Davies sat Duncan Wilson, representing the port of Vancouver, and two opponents of the proposal, Alexandra Woodsworth of the Georgia Strait Alliance and Rueben George of the local Tsleil-Waututh Nation.

The proposal at hand would increase oil tanker traffic in Vancouver’s harbour from roughly 60 ships a year to over 400 if it’s approved.

A handful of audience members were expressing support for the project, but they were far outnumbered by people who either opposed the pipeline, or at least had grave concerns they wanted to see addressed.

So many people came with so many different questions there wasn't even time to get through them all.

Not all questions even had answers, it seemed.

When pressed about whether bitumen would float, and be relatively easy to clean up in the case of an oil spill, Davies and Wilson said it generally does float long enough for a clean-up crew to recover it. But choppy seas might sap its buoyancy.

“We need to do more analysis,” said Wilson after an audience member pushed him hard for a clear answer.

Wilson, who had been touting the port’s squeaky-clean spill-free history after half a century of oil transport in the harbour, granted there was room for improvement to prepare for the added tanker traffic. He said more research was needed into the potential ramifications of the project, and said the port’s spill response capacity could also be improved.

Both Davies and Wilson pointed out that Kinder Morgan has not even submitted its formal proposal yet, forecasting that to happen in December, so there are plenty of hoops for the company to jump through in terms of environmental review before anything will be built. They say many questions will be answered in the evaluation process. 

Another question left up in the air Thursday night was whether local tugboats would be capable of safeguarding a tanker if it broke down in a storm. A couple audience members said the tugs wouldn’t be able to cope, while Davies seemed confident they were strong enough. Wilson said it would be addressed in a tanker safety report coming in November.

One resident was applauded when she asked Davies how the pipeline would benefit the region, specifically North Vancouver. As he talked about jobs generated (estimated at 50), property taxes along the route and potential spin-off work, much of the crowd was clearly unimpressed.

To George, grandson of the celebrated Chief Dan George, the money just isn’t worth the impact on the land. He mentioned the Fraser Declaration, a commitment by 160 First Nations to oppose oil sands developments.

He said even though he grew up in poverty, and concessions offered to First Nations group could help get them out of that, it’s not the money that matters most. 

“We need the land more,” he said.

As most people were seeking answers straight from the horse’s mouth, or at least from Wilson’s port perspective, George and his fellow pipeline opponent Woodsworth were rarely called upon to speak. Woodsworth said in her closing statement she hardly needed to, as the audience was doing her job of environmental activism for her.

“There’s anger in the room,” she said, framing the discussion as an issue of human rights, of indigenous rights, of public interest and of responsibility.

The four panelists had been invited by North Vancouver district’s council because of what mayor Richard Walton called the district’s stewardship of the Burrard Inlet and its coast. He said his council does not have a position on the project, but is using Thursday’s event to guide its discussion towards a response down the road. He added that other municipalities have expressed interest in holding similar events of their own.

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