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Enbridge faces questions on oil spills and Aboriginal relations, on eve of Kitimat vote

A Northern Gateway Open House event enabled many people to ask tough questions about the oil sands pipeline

Enbridge officials face questions at Northern Gateway open house in Kitimat
Enbridge officials at an open house event in Kitimat on Tuesday: Donny van Dyk, Janet Holder, Owen McHugh and Catherine Pennington. Photo by Mychaylo Prystupa.

With occasional blunt questions that stirred visible signs of discomfort, top Enbridge officials, including executive vice-president Janet Holder, responded to concerns about the Northern Gateway project at the company’s open house in Kitimat on Tuesday night.

“The Haisla have spoken against the pipelines and tankers.  Why are you ignoring the Haisla people and their wishes?” asked Kathy Ouwehand, a non-Aboriginal Kitimat woman.

“I think we are actively working to strengthen that relationship to better understand concerns…” started Donny van Dyk, Northern Gateway’s Manager of Coastal Aboriginal and Community Relations. 

Before he could finish though, shouts on the sensitive aboriginal relations topic began.    

“I think this line of questioning is better taken off line,” halted Van Dyk.

Such was the tension as Enbridge put on its 35th public event in the community to address the “many great and sincere questions,” said Van Dyk, about its oilsands pipeline.  General voting for a plebiscite on the project is Saturday.

Enbridge started its Tuesday open house with a presentation on the project’s 180 long-term jobs for Kitimat, training opportunities, and the millions of dollars in goods and services contracts that could flow from the project. 

“I think it’s an opportunity to create a sustainable community,” Janet Holder later told the Vancouver Observer.

“This is not about a pipeline necessarily.  It is about creating opportunities for people in the north, for those who live in the north, [and] for Aboriginal communities in the north,” she said.

Environmental Risk

But much of the Q&A segment focused on lingering concerns about environmental risks, including fumes from the 19 storage tanks near Kitimat, and the possibility of coastal spills in the ecologically sensitive Douglas Channel, now flourishing with whales, according to many locals. 

Gulf of Mexico BP oil spill

Controlled burn of oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, Wiki Commons

The company was asked about the odds of a catastrophic oil spill the likes of Exxon Valdez, or the BP Gulf of Mexico disasters.

“Very low,” said Owen McHugh, Enbridge’s Manager of Emergency Management.  “I’d urge you to go and look at the DNV risk assessment.”

That report, was a study prepared by a Norwegian firm that calculated that with mitigation measures, such as escort tug boats, the risk of spills in the Douglas Channel would be “one third the world average.”  Medium spills might occur once every 290 years, it stated.  

Concerned Professional Engineers has recently called this “a deeply flawed and unscientific analysis” saying the spill risk report didn’t account for increased LNG tankers for example, and that the data was private and not able to be verified.

McHugh said Enbridge has prepared for a worst cast scenario of a 30,000 cubic metre oil spill, with detailed response plans - a situation, he said that has never happened to the kind of double hulled vessels expected to be used.

The pipeline would pump half a million barrels of Alberta oil per day to B.C.’s northern coast, and on to 220 super tankers per year for export.  Enbridge said the Joint Review Panel of its project was the largest environmental review of an energy pipeline in Canadian history.

Tom Balfour Vote Yes Northern Gateway Kitimat Enbridge Open House

Enbridge supporter Tom Balfour at Northern Gateway open house on Tuesday.

One pulp mill retiree, Tom Balfour, is voting yes.

“Because we have to do something other than Alcan – we need something else going.  What are we going to do?  We need jobs going.”

A Gitxsan woman, Christie Brown, opposes the project.

“I grew up swimming at my grandma’s beach house near White Rock every summer… whether I’m swimming in [the ocean], or valuing the plants and animals that live there, I don’t want to ever risk a [marine] spill – it would be a catastrophe.”

Interest in the vote is huge.  The District of Kitimat said 910 people have already voted already in advance polls – an amount double the last municipal election.  Add on the plebiscite’s main vote on Saturday, and this town will have a record voter turn out.

Enbridge open house Kitimat plebiscite April 8

Vote No side feeling optimistic

Douglas Channel Watch -- a citizen group opposed to the pipeline -- said more than two thirds of the people they have reached at doorsteps claim they will vote no.

An Enbridge spokesperson said he "feels good" about the support the company is receiving.  

It's unclear what Enbridge would do if they lose this vote. 

"There is no plan B," said Holder.

But critically, she said, if the project is approved by the Harper cabinet before mid-June, Enbridge would try to bring opposing First Nations on board.

“We continue to engage to the Aboriginal communities – those that have signed on with equity, and those who’ve not,” said Holder. 

Recently, Haisla Nation’s elected Chief Councillor Elllis Ross wrote an open letter strongly opposing the project.  Haisla’s traditional territory is where 19 storage tanks and two super tanker berths for the pipeline would be built.  

Only District of Kitimat residents can vote.

The plebiscite asks:

Do you support the final report recommendations of the Joint Review Panel (JRP) of the Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency and National Energy Board, that the Enbridge Northern Gateway project be approved, subject to 209 conditions set out in Volume 2 of the JRP's final report?

vote yes vote no signs Kitimat Enbridge plebiscite

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