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Serious health effects predicted in major oil spill

Up to one million people could be exposed to toxic gases

A major oil spill in Vancouver waters could potentially expose up to one million people to unsafe levels of a toxic vapour released from diluted bitumen, city council heard Wednesday in a damning city staff report on Kinder Morgan’s proposal to build a pipeline from Alberta to Burnaby.

In presenting the report, deputy city manager Sadhu Johnston outlined scenarios where exposure to the chemical benzene could lead to adverse health effects for residents and visitors, ranging from dizziness to nausea to possible death.

“For folks that are on the seawall, they could be actually struck with this wave of toxic gases that could render them unable to evacuate,” said Johnston, noting 25,000 residents live within 300 metres of the city’s waterfront. “These are serious health impacts. So this is not just about oil hitting shorelines, this is about our residents being exposed to very serious health effects.”

The finding was among some of the new information the city released in its fight to oppose Kinder Morgan’s $5.4-billion proposal to build a new pipeline from Alberta to its existing terminal on the edge of Burrard Inlet in Burnaby. The company wants to increase its current 300,000 barrels of oil per day to 890,000 litres. Such an expansion would mean an increase to the number of oil tankers in local waters and see more oil stored in Kinder Morgan’s existing tank farms at the base of Burnaby Mountain.

The report also concluded a major oil spill, which Johnston defined as 16 million litres, would be a catastrophic blow to the city’s economy, marine industry and brand. The conclusions were reached after the city collected data and opinion from its staff and consulted with various “experts,” including university professors, chemists, chemical engineers, ecologists, oil spill response researchers and a company that rates a city’s brand.

Their findings included:

  • Kinder Morgan’s existing pipeline has a history of spills not acknowledged in their evidence and was approved in 1951 with no environmental assessment. Eighty-one spill incidents were reported to the National Energy Board between 1961 and 2013.
  • Kinder Morgan’s own estimate is that pipeline leaks under 75 litres per hour may not be detected.
  • A spill at the terminal or in Burrard Inlet over any 50-year period is 79 to 87 per cent likely to happen.
  • Worst case oil spill scenarios at four locations in Burrard Inlet determined 50 to 90 per cent of the oil would reach shorelines.
  • Vancouver’s brand, suggested to be valued at $31 billion, could be impaired by $3 billion, if a major spill were to occur.

If a major spill were to occur near the Fraser River estuary, the report said more than 100,000 birds could die, the killer whale population would be jeopardized, marine mammals such as porpoises and seals would be decimated and the province’s prized salmon runs would be hit hard.

In arguing against Kinder Morgan’s position that expanding its oil capacity will be good for the economy, Johnston said many experts studying climate change and world markets are predicting more use of alternative and sustainable forms of energy, which will lead to a decrease in demand for oil.

He noted Kinder Morgan’s business case for expansion is based on the average price for a barrel of oil being at $94; it’s currently at $59 per barrel, with predictions it could drop to $39 per barrel by 2050.

“So council, after working on this for over a year at your direction, we as staff have determined that the risks and the costs outweigh the benefits of this proposal,” Johnston said.

Mayor Gregor Robertson said the evidence released in the report confirms the concerns raised by council and residents worried about the environmental and economic impacts of an oil spill.

“When you put the numbers in front of us, the scale is far beyond what anyone would have imagined when we see potentially over a billion-dollar hit to our economy and potentially a three-billion hit to Vancouver’s brand,” said the mayor, who campaigned against Kinder Morgan's proposal when he sought re-election last fall. "That’s absolutely disastrous for the city’s economy.”

Ali Hounsell, a spokesperson for Kinder Morgan’s TransMountain expansion project, said she watched the live stream of Johnston’s presentation to council. Hounsell said the tone of the presentation wasn’t surprising, considering the city’s well-publicized opposition to the proposal.

Hounsell said Kinder Morgan will review the city’s information and will respond formally to it as part of the National Energy Board process. However, she said, the company is confident it has demonstrated the need for the project in its application to the energy board.

Hounsell said commitment from the company’s longtime shippers is part of that need. She said those shippers have considered the fluctuation of oil prices and market conditions, saying “it’s a longtime gain for them.”

“At the end of the day, the project has benefits for all Canadians,” she said, noting the “meat of the project” is getting Canada’s oil producers access to world markets. “The difference in the dollars that they can get per barrel will result in higher taxes for local and federal governments that come back to all Canadians.”

When asked if Kinder Morgan believed the findings of the city, Hounsell said the company has done its own risk assessments and will examine what “assumptions” were made by the city in collecting data and reaching conclusions.

That examination will include whether the city’s findings present “a credible worst case scenario” of a spill and response to it.

“And what I mean by that is, ‘Have you included things like the mitigation that’s in place? Have you considered that tankers are required to be double-hulled? And the requirements for tug escort,’” she said, noting the company has discussed its plans with many communities along the proposed route. “We’re having productive, useful, engaging conversations and moving things forward with a lot of municipalities and a lot of First Nations. And that just comes from sitting at the table. And, as you know, the City of Vancouver has not sat at the table with us, and we think there’s lot to be said for face-to-face communications.”

Johnston noted in his report that the city submitted more than 1,200 questions to Kinder Morgan about the proposal. He said about 40 per cent of the answers were “unsatisfactory.”

The city filed Wednesday its evidence to the National Energy Board and will send its final written arguments in September. The energy board will decide next January on Kinder Morgan’s proposal. The federal government will then make a final decision in April 2016 on the project.