Photo: Ilja Herb
Over 1,200 marine traffic “incidents” have been recorded off British Columbia’s coast in the past decade, but the crisis on Foxy, our waterlogged sailboat, will not be among them. Ilja Herb turns a valve that stops the water coming in; no longer sinking, we unfurl the jib and sail toward a narrow bay sheltered from the wind by a steep mountain. Foxy drifts to a halt in time for us to drop anchor in 12 metres of water: safe.
No sooner have we done this than a guttural howl boils out of the woods. Fifty metres from us, a pack of pale wolves scamper across the rocks at the ocean’s edge, then melt back into the forest. We’d heard about the wolves. They are unique among their kind, like so many creatures here, for this is the land of the Only: the only place on Earth where wolves still feed on salmon; the only place on Earth where black bears are sometimes white; the only place on Earth where five species of salmon fertilize the forest with their bodies, hauled in by wolves, bears and birds who leave the half- eaten carcasses of coho, chinook, chum, sockeye and pink salmon to rot into the moss and feed the trees. (Salmon-specific isotopes have even been discovered in the uppermost needles of these conifers.) Other superlatives work, too: this is one of the biggest stretches of temperate rainforest. The trees here are among the world’s oldest. Combined, ocean and woods harbour the greatest biomass density of any ecosystem on Earth.
Enbridge-responsible for six of the 10 largest pipeline spills in the United States since 2002, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation-claims none of that will be threatened. The scientific data for that confidence can be found in the Quantitative Risk Analysis carried out by the consulting branch of Det Norske Veritas (DNV), a Norwegian firm that describes itself as a provider of “services for managing risk.” Founded in 1864 to verify the seaworthiness of Norwegian merchant vessels, DNV enjoys a stellar reputation. It was hired by the U.S. government to study the BP’s Deepwater Horizon disaster, and in the case of the Northern Gateway, the company was chosen not just by Enbridge but also by stakeholders, including several First Nations and industry groups. Last year, Transport Canada gave its imprimatur to the findings in a report signed off on by the Department of Fisheries and Oceans, Environment Canada and the Pacific Pilotage Authority (PPA).
“We look at it from a strictly navigational perspective,” says Kevin Obermeyer, president and CEO of the PPA, which supplies the pilots who guide all vessels on Canada’s Pacific coast. “The bottom line is you can get these vessels from deep sea to Kitimat and back very safely.” (Transport Canada, the Department of Fisheries and Oceans, and Environment Canada all declined to be interviewed for this article.)
Obermeyer stresses that the PPA’s support for the Northern Gateway was contingent on Enbridge’s following through with all the promises made in its marine-safety strategy-such as only using double-hulled tankers, with two tugs apiece. “People are going to jail for causing oil spills,” he points out. “You’ve got to look at this and make damn sure that you’re not going to be one of them.”
Last year, three B.C. engineers-who had spent their careers assessing risk probabilities for industrial projects ranging from iceberg impacts on Arctic oil platforms to ship collisions on the Fraser River-became concerned that no independent authorities had assessed DNV’s analysis. They decided to tackle the job themselves. Among the quirks they discovered in DNV’s methodology was a reliance on oil-tanker statistics that excluded other kinds of shipping figures from the Northern Gateway route itself. Why? Because there have never been oil tankers allowed in the Tanker Exclusion Zone.
“The reason they didn’t use the local data,” counters John Carruthers, president of Enbridge Northern Gateway Pipelines, “is that there hasn’t been an incident on the coast of British Columbia.” Using numbers from “comparable locations” like Norway’s North Sea or Canada’s East Coast, which share the same weather, claims Carruthers, “actually gave us better data.”
Not so, says Mal Walsh, a retired master mariner with 40 years of experience in the international oil and shipping industry. Walsh, now living in Comox, B.C., commanded vessels in Norway for six years and believes Northern Gateway oil tankers will be battling more brutal conditions. “The seas generated in the Pacific in winter cannot by any stretch of the imagination be compared to those in the North Sea,” he says. “Nor does Norway have anything like the Arctic outflows that sweep out of Kitimat.”
Walsh also doubts the Canadian Coast Guard’s vessels are powerful enough to rescue a disabled tanker; should an emergency overwhelm what is known as a Very Large Crude Carrier (VLCC) and both its escort tugs, there will be no one to call for help. “Could you take a tanker up to Kitimat with two tugs and not have an accident?” Walsh asks. “Yes, of course. Could you do it nearly every day of the year? That’s another question. In the event of power loss or steering malfunction, trying to stop a laden VLCC doing 10 knots-that would take everything in the world going right for you.”