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One of the issues in the Northern Gateway pipeline hearing is the threat that oil tankers will pose in the dangerous channels and sensitive ocean environments near the proposed port, Kitimat. Enbridge soothingly predicts that major spills will be inconceivably rare:

“under our proposed marine safety program, the probability of a “large” spill of 20,000 cubic metres (126,000 barrels) is once in 2,800 years, and the probability of a “major” spill of 40,000 cubic metres (252,000 barrels) is once in more than 15,000 years (project application Volume 8C, Section 3, page 3-2)”

Enbridge promises to minimize spills by requiring:

  • Escort tugs, the most powerful on the West Coast, that will also carry emergency response and firefighting equipment
  • Establishing a first response team in Kitimat that will significantly decrease the federal standard of responding to an incident
  • Locating emergency response equipment and training staff at locations along the marine route
  • Installing and monitoring a radar system to cover critical route sections and a monitoring station in Kitimat for all marine traffic to provide guidance to pilots and other vessels in the area
  • Tankers must be a maximum of 20 years old and classified by a suitable classification society
  • Tankers must be insured and provide proof of insurance
  • Tankers must be double-hulled
  • A tanker’s classification society must be a member of the International Association of Classification Societies
  • Tankers must not have changes in ownership, classification or insurance underwriters more than once in the past two years
  • The tanker must have at least one inspection report in the Ship Inspection Report Program (SIRE) database in the previous two years
  • The tankers owner must agree to allow Northern Gateway or its agent access to the tanker for inspection
  • The tanker must have English-speaking officers and crew
  • The tankers will not have any expired or temporary certificates onboard
  • A tanker must certify that it meets all Flag and Port State requirements
  • A tanker’s owner must agree to meet all the marine terminal regulations (such as the use of tethered escort and berthing tugs)
  • A tanker’s crew must agree to allow Northern Gateway to place representatives onboard the tanker as required during ballast discharge and loading operations to observe for safety and pollution prevention”

These are good, indeed impressive, precautions, which should definitely help if fully enforced, but I remain a sceptic.

Oil tankers are undoubtedly much safer than they used to be. Since the Torrey Canyon and the Exxon Valdez, catastrophes of a generation ago, there have been major improvements in tankers (notably double hulls), in spill preparedness and response, and in navigational aids such as GPS. The International Tanker Owners Pollution Federation proudly reports that oil spills from ships have plunged since the 1970s, despite an increase in seaborne trade. Only one third of the major marine spills in the first decade of this century involved oil tankers, and not all of those lost their cargos. (The remaining spills involved fuel tanks used by other types of ships, and/or hazardous or noxious substances from other types of cargo.)

But there were still 221 significant pollution incidents from sophisticated ships between 2000 and 2010. For  example, in 2010, the MSC Chitra lost 600 tonnes of fuel oil plus containers of the pesticide aluminium phosphide just outside Mumbai Port. Aluminium phosphide turns into poisonous phosphene gas when mixed with water. The spill contaminated sensitive mangroves, a world heritage site, and a popular tourist area, just before a major religious festival involving baptism in the affected waters.

Spills of heavy oil, such as could be shipped from the tar sands, are particularly damaging and hard to clean, as shown by the €100 million wreck of the Prestige in 2002:

“Owing to the highly persistent nature of PRESTIGE’s cargo [of heavy oil], the released oil drifted for extended periods with winds and currents, travelling great distances…

A major offshore cleanup operation was carried out … the largest international effort of its kind ever mounted … hampered by severe weather and by the inability of those vessels that lacked cargo heating capability to discharge recovered oil. Over a thousand fishing vessels also participated in the cleanup…

The open-sea recovery operation off Spain reportedly removed almost 50,000 tonnes of oil-water mixture. However this, and the extensive booming of estuaries and sensitive areas by the deployment of over 20km of boom, failed to prevent extensive coastal contamination…. approximately 1,900 km of shoreline….  banning virtually all fishing… impact on tourism .… etc.”

And let’s not forget the Costa Concordia, where a highly experienced domestic captain drove his ship onto well known rocks. If all of this could happen in developed countries with sophisticated ships, why would Enbridge’s tankers be exempt?

This post was originally published on the Huffington Post, at  http://www.huffingtonpost.ca/../../dianne-saxe/northern-gateway-tankers-_b_1256161.html.

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