Human Error Inevitable - So Is Spill

Malcolm Baxter
Kitimat Northern Sentinel
October 14, 2011


Raised in Kitimat and now living in Smithers, Greg Brown is an environmental consultant who has worked on energy issues for the past decade.

And, he told the crowd at the recent Enbridge educational forum, he regards the Northern Gateway project as “a risky experiment”.

Brown said the issue was the introduction of a “massive export pipeline and very large crude carriers (VLCCs) to the BC coast.”

It was also about the people who called this region home because, “We are the ones taking the risk of the inevitable oil spill.”

Why did he say it was inevitable? “Because people make mistakes.”

Brown pointed to the Exxon Valdez spill as one example of just that.

“The consequences were devastating. Jobs were lost, fisheries collapsed, there were major social problems such as alcoholism and suicides,” he said.

And 20 years later oil still persisted in beaches in the area.

The Michigan spill last year into the Kalamazoo River was an example of human error making a bad situation worse.

“For 12 hours this pipeline gushed oil while the company turned it on and turned it off because it misinterpreted the information they were receiving in the control room in Edmonton,” Brown said.

It was finally shut down after a farmer reported oil running in a ditch on his land which ran into the Kalamazoo..

“In this case the alarms were working but the people were not,” he added.

And more than a year later they were still clearing oil off the bottom of the river “because this was unconventional oil and it sunk.”

Brown asked people to consider what would happen in the case of a rupture of the Northern Gateway line which ran through remote areas. “There’s no one around in the middle of the night to call 911.”

The Queen of the North slamming into Gil Island was another case of human error and the people of Hartley Bay were still reporting diesel fuel coming up from the wreck.

Brown pointed out that site was “very close” to the route Enbridge wanted to bring the VLCCs through, adding these 1,100ft. tankers were five to sic times larger than the vessels that you saw in the Douglas Channel today.

On double hulled vessels, Brown con ceded they were good for minimizing oil spillage in the case of “minor groundings and low energy collisions.

“However, they were not the saviour Enbridge makes them out to be.”

In the case of a collision between a tanker and a barge that he highlighted, 11,000 barrels were spilled.

Brown emphasized the bitumen the Northern Gateway line would be carrying was different from conventional crude.

“Raw and in the middle of winter, it has the consistency of a hockey puck,” he said. “It is very acidic - 15-25 times more - it’s 5-10 times more sulphuric, it contains course sand particles that are abrasive, it is 70 times thicker than conventional crude and it’s full of heavy metals,” he said.

And the pipeline system has to run at two-and-a-half times the pressure of a normal line to push the diluted bitumen through.

Noting the Alberta pipeline system has been handling bitumen more than anywhere else on the continent, Brown said, “They are finding...they fail 16 times more frequently due to internal corrosion than the US pipeline system.

“That’s why [Northern Gateway] is a risky experiment.”

Acknowledging there were people in Kitimat who, in the wake of industry closures here, talked about the number of jobs the project would create, Brown suggested Northern Gateway would create fewer jobs than they think.

He said he had been told about 25-32 people currently worked at the Cenovus (former Methanex) site handling one tanker of condensate a month, adding that facility would be obsolete once Enbridge started importing condensate.

So while Enbridge said there would be 52 jobs for Kitimat, Brown said you had to subtract the lost jobs at the Cenovus terminal, leaving just a 25-27 net gain in employment.

Against that, he pointed to about 11,000 full time equivalent jobs related to marine harvest on the coast, including fishing, fish processing and aquaculture.

“Your voice matters in this,” he said in closing. “If you think this is not the right project for Kitimat...then I ask you to join others and voice your opposition.”

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