What if there really was a major spill?

Op-eds Opinions

The planned Trans Mountain Pipeline and Westridge Marine Terminal Expansion come with a 58-98 per cent chance of a spill within 50 years

Photo via Pixabay

The Salish Sea, comprised of the Strait of Georgia, Strait of Juan de Fuca, and Puget Sound, is one of the most biodiverse inland seas in the world. 462 species of mammals, birds, and fish, and 3 000 species of invertebrates rely on this unique marine ecosystem. Some of these animals, like the Southern Resident Killer Whales and Chinook salmon, are iconic to the Pacific Northwest. Others, like the world’s largest octopus, the Giant Pacific Octopus, are record-holders.

More than seven million people also live in the region, with the population expected to reach nine million by 2025. The Salish Sea’s patchwork of ecological reserves and protected areas is criss-crossed by international shipping lanes and passenger ferry routes. Thanks to human activity, 125 species are considered to be at risk.

With a potential expansion of the Trans Mountain pipeline looming at the Alberta border, environmentalist opposition in B.C. is vocal. One of the primary concerns for opponents of the expansion is the increased risk of a catastrophic spill as a result of increased tanker traffic.

In 2018, four or five oil tankers called at the Port of Vancouver every month, representing approximately two per cent of the port’s total traffic. Trans Mountain expects the expansions of the existing pipeline and Westridge Marine Terminal to accommodate 34 tankers per month, meaning they would account for 14 per cent of total traffic — a sevenfold increase.

Trans Mountain wants to increase the annual number of Salish Sea transits made by oil tankers calling at Vancouver’s port from 106 to 816, in addition to the 872 transits tankers made travelling to and from Washington ports in Puget Sound in 2018.


The amount of oil recovered after a spill is usually only 10-15 per cent, though the success rate can be higher in ideal conditions.

Pipeline supporters will say that 11 000 large ships transit the Salish Sea each year, and even with the expansion, tankers will only account for a fraction of this traffic. They will say that for this route tugboat escorts, the presence of locally trained pilots on the bridge, and the use of high-precision marine navigational equipment is mandatory. They will say that Very Large and Ultra Large Crude Carrier supertankers aren’t permitted in this area, only the smaller Panamax and Aframax-size tankers. They will say that all tankers entering Canadian waters are double-hulled, and that other ports in other parts of the world manage far greater traffic. 

But the stakes for the Salish Sea, and for the people and animals who live in its waters and on its shores, make the risk a great one. 355 additional tankers travelling 148 kilometres every day from Race Rocks through Haro Strait, Boundary Pass, and the Second Narrows, or making the reverse trip, makes the risk of a spill at some point in the 50 years following the expansion 58-98 per cent.

When the Exxon Valdez spilled over 41 million litres of crude oil into Alaska’s Prince William Sound, 2 092 km of coastline was coated in oil. Hundreds of thousands of seabirds, otters, seals, whales, and other animals perished. That spill occurred in 1989. Take a shovel to the beach today, and oily swill quickly seeps out of the ground.

Some species never recovered. Herring were once an economic essential, but the population never rebounded and commercial fishing has been shut down for over 20 years. The AT1 killer whale pod, which uses Prince William Sound year-round, was decimated, losing 14 members.

The animals who use the Salish Sea would fare similarly. The endangered Southern Resident Killer Whale population already suffer from starvation linked to the decline of Chinook salmon, handicapped hunting and communication abilities due to underwater noise from ship traffic, and build-up of toxins in their bodies from swimming in polluted waters and eating contaminated salmon. The toxic effects of spilled oil would hasten their slow decline to extinction.

Seabirds are dreadfully and immediately impacted by oil spills. The black gunk mats and separates feathers, ruining the birds’ natural buoyancy and waterproofing, and the birds ingest the toxic oil when they try to clean themselves. A large spill would be fatal for 100-500 000 birds, a death toll that could irrevocably impact entire ecosystems. A spill near the Fraser River estuary could impact seabirds on a global level, as the estuary hosts millions of migratory birds every spring and fall.

The Salish Sea spill may not be the next Exxon Valdez. It might be small and relatively manageable — but it could also be catastrophic. We have no way of knowing which will occur.

We don’t even really know how diluted bitumen (dilbit), the heavy crude that the new pipeline is supposed to carry, would behave in the Salish Sea. Bitumen is too thick for pipelines. To flow, it must be mixed with lighter petroleum and other chemicals. 

Scientists are still experimenting with dilbit in salt water to see if it will float, should a spill occur. Some testing indicates that it may float for a week. Other tests show that dilbit can sink within 26 hours in brackish water, such as in Burrard Inlet and near the mouth of the Fraser.

The density of bitumen before it is diluted, and mixture used to dilute it, may impact how the oil behaves. The tides in the Salish Sea may cause more oil to become stranded on the shoreline. As has been demonstrated by the Exxon Valdez disaster, if oil sinks into beaches, it will remain for decades.

Fortunately, B.C. has the Western Canada Marine Response Corporation (WCMRC), of which Trans Mountain is a part owner, along with other oil companies. 

$150 million is being invested in new equipment and response bases in the Salish Sea. If or when the proposed pipeline and terminal expansions are complete, fleet size will have doubled to 84 vessels and response time reduced to two to six hours, depending on where precisely a spill occurs. The WCMRC also has over 400 Geographic Response Strategies to protect vulnerable coastline, with the goal of preparing location-specific strategies for the entirety of B.C.’s coast. 

But the stakes for the Salish Sea, and for the people and animals who live in its waters and on its shores, make the risk a great one.

However, the human capacity to clean up oil spilled in water remains severely limited. In 2016, when the U.S. tugboat Nathan E. Stewart ran aground in the Seaforth Channel, rough weather broke containment booms and tens of thousands of litres of diesel fuel washed onto the shores of the Great Bear Rainforest.

The amount of oil recovered after a spill is usually only 10-15 per cent, though the success rate can be higher in ideal conditions.

Regardless of the effectiveness of the spill response, even a minor spill in a sensitive ecological area like the Salish Sea could cause irreversible damage. The dilbit mixture can be up to 40 per cent hazardous chemicals, such as benzene, toluene, and hexane. As the lighter materials evaporate, they produce carcinogenic fumes. Waves cause crude oil to mix with water, spreading tiny drops of toxic oil and expanding the spill outward and down into the water column. 

In the brackish waters of Burrard Inlet or the Fraser River estuary, dilbit is even more likely to sink. When this happens, small fish, zooplankton, and other marine life near the surface consume oil droplets, becoming contaminated. Depending on the time of year, oil droplets could be ingested by juvenile and adult salmon, either directly or as a result of eating smaller contaminated prey. This contamination travels up the food chain to larger predators, such as marine mammals and people. If the oil reaches the shoreline, shellfish harvests would also be destroyed. 

We also don’t know what the price tag of a major spill would be. The cost varies depending on the size and location of the spill, the type of oil spilled, and how difficult it is to clean up. What we do know is that clean-up costs per tonne of oil in North America are among the highest in the world — over 1.5 times the global average.

Whoever owns the source of a spill, be it terminal or tanker, is considered at fault. Compensation for cleanup costs come from both international and domestic funds, limiting the amount available to about $1.44 billion. The cost of a large spill could exceed this amount by nearly three billion dollars, a bill which would be paid by taxpayers.

That’s just the cleanup costs. There’s also the potential crash of portions of B.C.’s ecotourism industry and commercial fishing. B.C. is a destination for people who want to see pristine wild spaces and interact with the natural environment. Tourists don’t visit beaches or buy whale watching trips when the ocean and shoreline is coated with an oil slick, and no one wants to eat tainted fish.

For the current federal government, this risk is worth it. The potential economic benefit is worth putting irreplaceable ecosystems on the line. Getting tar sands oil to market is more important than protecting the wildlife and coastal scenery that holds immeasurable value for Salish Sea watershed residents, tourists, and Indigenous peoples. There isn’t 100 per cent certainty that there will be a catastrophic spill, so some say it probably won’t happen.

After all, the Salish Sea has never seen a major spill, so we don’t need to worry … right?