Skip to content

Op-ed: Pipeline thoughts from an old sea captain

I write from the perspective of an oldtimer, a master mariner who has a few tidbits of wisdom from my time on this planet.

I write from the perspective of an oldtimer, a master mariner who has a few tidbits of wisdom from my time on this planet.

These thoughts are to do with the feds and Enbridge's so-called plan to run supertankers through the narrow passages out of Kitimat.

One word sums this up: Poppycock!

I was capable and qualified to sail any ship this world had to offer and was in charge of some of the largest vessels used on this British Columbia coastline. My certificate, signed by the then federal minister of transportation, was unrestricted; it literally states "Limitations: None."

I've sailed every part of this coast, seen just about every kind of storm, squall or system, and I've experienced every kind of tide, current or cycle imaginable. I believe I am qualified to ask the simplest of questions:

Why would anyone in their right mind ever consider the proposition of running supertankers through the seascape around Kitimat?

Every skipper would describe the conditions in British Columbia as unpredictable. This aptly pertains to anywhere along our coast, but gains special meaning when applied to the labyrinth of inlets and islands along the route out of Kitimat.

There are simply too many variables at play to guarantee safety, and there have been too many wrecks to prove it.

These include the carcass of the U.S. warship M.S. Zalinski currently leaking its 700 tons of fuel oil into the estuary, and the ill-fated Queen of the North that sank as recently as 2006.

Even simple navigation presents difficulties when sailing these waters. Given the size of these mammoth vessels, the distances for turning or stopping these boats would be measured in kilometres not feet. Assisted by tugboats, they would need to proceed at a snail's pace which leads to the next challenge.

There is not a career captain on the coast that hasn't seen a storm come out of nowhere. It would be simply impossible to avoid one, and I'm here to tell you that when Mother Nature kicks up a fuss in those straights, hell hath no fury. . . . Years ago, out of Kitimat, the wind kicked up so hard, we were literally going backwards at full throttle. All I can say is that I surely appreciated the distance between me and the rocky shore, a luxury these supertankers just won't have.

Tides are another thing. The reason there is no standard depth along there is they shift so frequently. This wouldn't pose as much of a threat if not compounded by the severe currents and the high winds that can blow several feet of water up and down the inlets.

I'm sure that this is only scratching the surface of the variables and combinations thereof that would make a disaster here more probable than possible.

I could spend more time discussing the possibility of mechanical failure, human error, the futility of double hulled tankers in this terrain, or containing a spill here, but this is not my purpose.

My main objective is to question what appears to be a shell game the Harper government is playing with us. These people are either complete idiots or taking us for fools - and I don't believe they're idiots.

If I were in the position of the current government and Enbridge, who are so obviously in bed together, and I wanted to push through something so obviously against the interests of Canada in general, and B.C. in particular, I would do the following:

1. Propose something egregious and unsavoury, such as a plan to run supertankers through some of the most volatile but pristinely beautiful area Canada has to offer; and

2. When a decision is to be made and opposition is at its highest, make a concession that reroutes the pipeline to a "safer" harbour, most likely Prince Rupert, which was the plan all along.

In this plot, attention would be focused on a probable massive disaster on the coast and turned away from the probability of numerous smaller disasters along the pipeline path itself. By the time the dust settled, the pipeline would be approved, construction would begin and there would be no recourse.

This plan might also be designed to try to defeat aboriginal interests. It is my understanding that in order to pass legal muster in regards to passing the pipeline through First Nations' territories, the government must both "consult" these communities and "accommodate" their interests. The Prince Rupert fall-back may be the "accommodation" necessary to meet that legal test if the First Nations challenge the decision in court.

My message to British Columbians on all this is: Don't be fooled! Stand up now before it's too late, or we'll be choking on raw bitumen for generations to come, and all so a very few fat cats in Alberta and China can reap billions. I implore you, don't let these greedy corporate hacks steal my great grandchildren's beautiful legacy.

Thank you.

Edward A. Wray is a retired West Coast sea captain who spent nearly half a century on the water. The column and a copy of Wray's master's certificate - with no limitations - were submitted by his grandson, Shain Jackson, president of Spirit Works Ltd. in North Vancouver.