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Oil tanker spill inevitable engineers tell Enbridge

A study conducted by independent professional engineers has found that Enbridge’s proposal to ship heavy oil sands bitumen from Kitimat to China is “too risky to accept.”

An oil tanker spill on B.C.’s coast is inevitable if the Enbridge pipeline project proceeds, says local retired engineer Brian Gunn.

Cleaning up the heavy, gooey bitumen would be an impossible nightmare, Gunn and two engineering colleagues have warned the National Energy Board’s (NEB) joint review panel studying the proposed Northern Gateway Pipeline Project.

Gunn, who is based at Strathcona Park Lodge and is president of the BC Wilderness Tourism Association, told the Mirror, “There will be spills. Even Enbridge acknowledges that. The question is when and how often.”

Gunn’s brief to the review panel was co-authored by engineers Ricardo Foschi and Bob Sexsmith. In the course of their research Gunn spent 17 days in July aboard a 19-foot inflatable travelling to coastal settlements between Bella Bella and Port Simpson. He met with many First Nations leaders, whale researchers and other stakeholders.

The proposed oil tanker sailing route between Kitimat and the Pacific Ocean is 160 nautical miles and includes narrow channels, sharp bends and high risks associated with heavy fog, winds and snow. The transportation of bitumen by super tankers along this section of coastline is fraught with risks, Gunn says.

Bitumen is produced when tar and sand are separated in Alberta. When it is ultimately upgraded, in Alberta or China, it becomes light crude and petroleum coke.

Gunn and his team of engineers are challenging a risk analysis conducted by Enbridge that finds the levels of safety for this project are not substantially different from those already accepted in other parts of the world. Gunn says the Enbridge report is flawed and the estimated levels of risk do not reflect the realities of shipping on the B.C. coastline.

For example, Enbridge has not taken into account the fact that the oil tankers will be sharing narrow channels with Liquid Natural Gas (LNG) tankers from separate LNG terminals near Kitimat. It is estimated that, in addition to the 220 oil tankers operating annually from Kitimat, 432 LNG tankers will share the Northern Route.

Gunn’s colleagues calculate the probability of a spill over a 50 year period is 30 per cent while Enbridge’s calculations, based on more generous scenarios, place that same risk at only 18 per cent.

The Enbridge submission describes the wind conditions along the route from Kitimat to the open ocean as similar to those encountered in Norway and Scotland. “Contrary to what is stated in the Enbridge submission, the wind conditions along the northern part of the B.C. coast are much more severe,” Gunn says. The retired engineer says while lighter oil floats on the surface of the water where it is easier to clean up, bitumen sinks to the bottom in fresh water and to a level below the surface in salt water.

“In both cases it is almost impossible to clean up and tides and currents can spread it over vast areas with severe and catastrophic consequences. We believe that the impact on the First Nation food supply and their culture, on nature and adventure-based tourism operations, on commercial fisherman and on the environment will be devastating.”

Gunn and his colleagues recommend Enbridge’s bitumen should not be shipped through B.C. but should be upgraded in Alberta to light crude. The byproduct should by shipped by rail to Ridley Island near Prince Rupert or Roberts Bank near Vancouver for export to China. And, the light crude should be transported to a southern port along a safer pipeline corridor, such as to Vancouver or Cherry Point, Washington. “We have a passion for the environment, a desire to do the right thing for our children and grandchildren.”

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