A significant risk

By Leslie Campbell, February 2013

Is the Northern Gateway Joint Review Panel shirking its responsibility to include tanker safety in their analysis?

Shortly after the Victoria visit of the Joint Review Panel into Enbridge’s Northern Gateway pipeline proposal, Beverley Mitchell, a retired Sister of St Ann, called me. This was not the first time I’d heard from Bev. She had contacted me shortly after reading my Editor’s Letter in Focus’ May edition, describing my experience at the Comox hearings into the pipeline. During that earlier conversation, I encouraged her to write about her own thoughts on the matter.

She told me that challenge led her on a journey of investigation. “I spent literally months researching…I blame you!” she said jokingly. But her main purpose in calling was to offer me a paper copy she had of one of the presentations made at the Victoria hearings. She said, “After the panel heard [Gerald Graham], they should have said, ‘We’re going home, we’ve heard enough!’”

I decided it was a good opportunity to meet Bev and dropped by the next day. She lives just above Willows Beach on the third floor of an apartment with views of Chatham and Discovery Islands and, further out, San Juan Island. 

As we looked out at the view, she told me about watching the tanker Carmen, carrying 700,000 barrels of Kinder Morgan oil, probably en route to China, ply the passage in front of us and wondering what would happen to the area if there was an accident due to fog or mechanical or human error. “Right now it’s the terrorist aspect that frightens me. We’ve made ourselves so unpopular and terrorists can be so sophisticated. Consider what would happen if terrorists blew up a tanker and 700,000—or one million [the capacity of newer tankers]—barrels emptied into Burrard Inlet. It would devastate the Pacific North West.”

A professor emeritus of the University of Alberta with two graduate degrees in Canadian Literature, Bev has reviewed countless sources of information relating to pipeline proposals, including transcripts of hearings. “I can’t trust the newspapers,” she said. After her months of homework, she engaged in correspondence with BC Minister of Environment Terry Lake and at least one newspaper commentator about the facts of the situation. Though in her 80s, and reliant on a walker, Bev’s mind is agile and able. 


About 300 people made formal presentations during the seven days of hearings in Victoria; some names are familiar—Vicki Husband, Jane Sterk, Briony Penn, and I recognized about half a dozen Focus subscribers— but most are not. The one Bev was so keen to tell me about was Dr Gerald Graham, a Canadian Coast Guard-trained On Scene Commander for oil spill response. Graham, who has a doctorate in international affairs (his thesis was on Law of the Sea) lives in Victoria and is president of Worldocean Consulting Ltd, a company specializing in marine oil spill prevention and response planning. He’s worked for many government agencies, and in 2010 he reviewed Enbridge’s Northern Gateway application, completing a 53-page report, Marine Oil Spill Aspects of the Northern Gateway Project, for the Living Oceans Society and Coastal First Nations Great Bear Initiative. 

He told the Joint Review Panel that after the Exxon Valdez and Nestucca oil spills, he served as a full-time, in-house consultant to the Tanker Safety Panel, which produced the so-called Brander-Smith report. That report, he said, “led to the marine oil spill response regime which is still in place in Canada,” noting that it will be the tanker owner, not Enbridge, that will be responsible for oil spill cleanup operations and costs.

In his presentation Dr Graham reminded the Joint Review Panel that the marine component is an integral part of the project and clearly part of the terms of reference for the project review. “Unfortunately, the Panel displays a disturbing tendency to omit the marine transportation component in various documents and statements issued by it,” he noted, citing examples.

Expressing concern that the Panel will “defer to Transport Canada’s 2012 TERMPOL review by which five federal agencies basically signed off on the marine component of the Northern Gateway proposal,” he urged the panel to not sidestep its responsibility and to conduct its own review of marine transportation issues: “I am of the view that once the Panel has conducted its own review of marine component of the project, it will overrule the TERMPOL findings and find that this aspect of it is not in fact safe, leading to the recommendation that the Enbridge Northern Gateway project as a whole is not in the public interest.” 

Enbridge’s plan will see 220 tankers plying the notoriously dangerous waters of Hecate Strait and the narrow Douglas Channel to Kitimat. Sid Jorna, another presenter and a retired commander of the Royal Canadian Navy, told panelists, “bulk oil carriers in these waters pose an unacceptable risk with extreme consequences to the environment.”

Dr Graham, too, told the Panel, “there is a significant risk of an accident occurring. Extrapolating from [Enbridge’s] own ‘return periods,’ there is somewhere between an 8.7 percent and 14.1 percent chance of at least one tanker spill greater than 31,500 barrels occurring [in a 50-year period], depending on whether the pipeline has a 525,000 or 850,000 barrel per day capacity.

He labelled Enbridge’s concept of risk “seriously deficient,” explaining that “a commonly accepted way of evaluating risk is to multiply the probability of an event by its possible consequences. Enbridge’s risk analysis examines spill probabilities, but leaves out consequences. The consequences of a major oil spill along BC’s North Coast…could be catastrophic and irreversible. Couple this potentially disastrous outcome with a one in seven chance of one or more major spills occurring, and the overall threat level posed by Northern Gateway becomes unacceptably high.”

Here he warned of “potentially irreparable harm to Gwaii Haanas National Park and National Marine Conservation Area Reserves, which include a UNESCO World Heritage Site, as well as to Coastal First Nations communities and shellfish harvesting areas all along the tanker routes, plus commercial fishing interests and a burgeoning ecotourism sector. Marine mammals and marine birds—including diving birds—would be especially vulnerable to spilled oil.”

In his 2010 study, Graham reported that double-hull tankers are no panacea; he lists seven such tankers that have had major spills: three due to collisions, one to suspected terrorist attack, one ran aground, and one had a structural failure during a storm.

Towards the end of his presentation, Graham also put the kibosh to the idea that a good spill response plan will be our salvation, citing “the overwhelming challenges the local environment would present to responders such as myself in the event of a catastrophic spill. The area’s isolation and remoteness, sinuous coastline, lack of ports, airports and other infrastructure, plus fierce storms, all mitigate against effective oil spill response operations.” 

Coming from a spill-response expert, this is not encouraging.


As Bev and I stood at her window, we talked about the special problems posed by tankers carrying diluent and bitumen. The BC government admits recovery and remediation in the event of a bitumen spill is more difficult than that of conventional oil. Clean-up of “only” 20,000 barrels of diluted bitumen that leaked into a tributary of the Kalamazoo River proved a nightmare with costs 10 times higher than a normal oil clean-up. And two years later, 30 miles of the Kalamazoo remained closed to fishing, swimming, or even wading in the water.

Sister Bev wrote to Minister Lake last fall: “Unless Enbridge is paying Jesus to walk back and forth on its proposed route, it cannot be a ‘safe project,’ no matter how enhanced the design. It will put all living things at risk.”

Editor Leslie Campbell notes that Dr Graham has since called the Northern Gateway review a “complete farce…as well as a mockery of standard environmental assessment procedures.”