LET'S get real. The inner passages of the B.C. North Coast are no place for foreign-flag monster tankers loaded with diluted bitumen (dilbit).
Last August I made a formal submission to the Enbridge Joint Review Panel. Now, bombarded as we are by Enbridge full-page advertisements, I feel compelled to share my concerns more widely.
My experiences over more than 30 years on the B.C. Coast in 10 commercial and naval vessels as deckhand, bridge watchkeeper, navigator and captain, make me extremely concerned about the Enbridge proposal to ship, on a regular basis, huge quantities of dilbit from Kitimat out through Hecate Strait and Dixon Entrance to the Pacific.
Fair weather navigation in Douglas Channel, Squally Reach, Caamano Sound and Principe Channel requires precision and watchfulness even in a small vessel. The dangers attending a breakdown, misstep or inattention to duty escalate dramatically as vessel dimensions (and windage, turning characteristics, stopping distance etc.) increase. The deeper a shift's draft the more constrained the navigable channel becomes. Great range of tide, strong tidal currents and rapidly deteriorating weather - all typical of the North Coast - further complicate and can wreck the best laid plans for safe navigation.
I have sailed those waters in the flat calm of a sunny summer day, in thick fog, and in the driving rain squalls and buffeting of an autumn gale. My memories of Hecate Strait are that it can be idyllic and peaceful at one moment and then, within short hours, become a wasteland of howling winds and mountainous seas such as cause experienced mariners to grit their teeth and hang on tight. I was in the frigate HMCS Stettler there one night when we rolled sixty degrees to port, sustaining considerable damage down below. On another occasion, as my friends in the fleet oiler HMCS Provider related it, the 20,000 ton ship so nearly "stood on her nose" amid the monstrous waves of that extremely shallow strait that some on the bridge feared she might strike bottom. Recognized as the fourth most dangerous body of water in the world, 20 per cent of Hecate Strait has water depth of less than 20 metres. I wonder how a tanker drawing 60 or 70 feet might fare in a Hecate winter storm.
Risk is the product of likelihood that something will go wrong and the fallout if it does. Modern machinery, navigation aids, communications etc. can have zero failure rate, but those who operate the equipment, though better educated and trained than ever, always have been and surely will remain the major stumbling block to a foolproof system. Look no further than Titanic, Exxon Valdes, Queen of the North, Costa Concordia - all testament to human folly. Nor does the presence of a pilot on the bridge guarantee safe passage: We read that a senior B.C. pilot was directing the ship's movements when the Cape Apricot collided with the Westshore Terminal on Dec. 7, 2012 (Vancouver Sun, Dec. 18). Consider, too, that all the proposed tanker traffic would be in foreign-flag vessels, which do not always measure up to highest standards of safety, maintenance and crew competence.
The likelihood of a significant tanker accident between Kitimat and the Pacific may be very small, but it is finite.
The fallout could be horrendous. The Exxon legacy persists to this day in Cook Inlet. So does that of a much smaller spill closer to home and twice as long ago. In 1964, a barge carrying bunker oil sank in shallow water close to Mickey Island, near Vancouver, and leaked a dozen barrels a day into West Howe Sound for six-weeks until salvaged. Shorelines in the Pasley Island group were blackened to high tide mark, thousands of seabirds contaminated, and the bounteous oyster beds wiped out. Now, half a century later, there are far fewer seabirds, no oysters and the rocks still show black. All for a 500 barrel spill!
It appears that as yet only the World Wildlife Fund Canada - through studies by UBC Fisheries Centre and by the Centre for Marine Studies in Perth, Australia - has tackled seriously the possibility and impact of a major spill in North Coast waters. Big questions lie unanswered. Has the Canadian Coast Guard determined whether traditional crude oil spill clean-up techniques will work with dilbit? How will dilbit be dispersed by wind, sea and tide compared to crude? Is it more likely than crude to sink as the lighter properties evaporate? What toxins does it contain? How will all living things within the scope of such a spill be affected? If not contained or recovered, for how long will the spill site persist as an environmental hazard?
From what the climatologists keep telling us and from our own experience in recent seasons, it seems prudent to expect that extreme weather incidents will occur more frequently in years to come. The B.C. North Coast will not be immune. Driving a huge dilbit laden tanker through a treacherous channel in a North Coast winter gale invites disaster.
The finite likelihood of a tanker accident - no matter how remote - multiplied by the potentially catastrophic fallout from a major spill of diluted bitumen into northern B.C. waters constitutes a risk no thinking Canadian can afford to accept.
Roger Sweeny is a retired naval commander and a master mariner. He lives in West Vancouver.