Photo: Ilja Herb
Up we go through Seaforth Channel, the ocean’s swell rising as we enter Milbanke Sound, on the exposed outer edge of the Inside Passage. Soon Caamaño Sound opens up ahead, a circular hub of ocean from which channels jut out like spokes on a wheel. It’s the tide sloshing in and out of these inlets that creates the currents and whirlpools for which this zone is infamous. Still, if the weather was always as fair as we have it this summer, tankers might indeed be a viable option.
A little further north, past Gil Island, we enter Douglas Channel. Eighty-three kilometres long, 3.5 kilometres wide, over 300 metres deep-this is the portion of the proposed route Enbridge depicts on its website. It’s the one relatively straight and simple part of the path, and it leads to Kitimat.
Born in the 1950s as a workers’ camp for Alcan-then one of the largest aluminum plants in the world-Kitimat slipped into a malaise when the town’s methanol plant closed in 2006, with the pulp-and-paper mill following four years later.
Today, Kitimat is resurgent. In 2007, Alcan was bought by Rio Tinto, which plans to ramp up production; more significantly, liquid-natural-gas production is booming throughout northern British Columbia and Alberta, and a number of corporations are eyeing Kitimat as the ideal port from which to ship their products. Workers are now flooding back to the town, and city council has declared itself officially neutral on the subject of the Northern Gateway. Mayor Joanne Monaghan has even discouraged councillors from speaking to journalists about it.
Phil Germuth is a mechanic and first-term Kitimat councillor whose frustration has led him to defy his mayor’s wishes. Forty-six with a chestnut goatee and hands that are permanently oil-stained, Germuth loves machines, loves industry, loves to work. “When I first heard about the Northern Gateway, I thought, Hey, great! Jobs! Money! But when you educate yourself about it, you realize, holy crap, this isn’t such a good deal for 50 jobs.” Fifty-two jobs, actually-that’s the number Enbridge has promised Kitimat, about the same number of people a single, large B.C. ferry would employ. Nationally, once construction is finished, Enbridge expects the pipeline will lead to no more than 269 full-time positions.
“I hate being neutral, because it means you’re neutralized,” says Germuth. “We’ve got more to lose than any other community-no one else is at risk of both a pipeline spill and a tanker spill.” In fact, Kitimat may soon be a hive of increased tanker traffic. Three liquid-natural-gas projects are being considered for the town, which could add three times as many tankers to the Northern Gateway route. DNV’s models for calculating the odds of a coastal accident don’t consider this addition.
Humpack whales feed on herring and krill in Bishop Bay, south of Kitimat.
Kitimat is full of people who feel the way Germuth does. There’s Murray Minchin, a local postman, who overcame a debilitating stutter to deliver a flawless testimony at the public hearings into the Northern Gateway. There’s Manny Arruda, an emergency-response team leader at Rio Tinto Alcan, who testified at the same hearings about the difficulties of dealing with emergencies in Kitimat’s harsh climate. There’s Kelly Marsh, Kitimat’s lean and boy-faced chief millwright who, with the help of a mathematician, believes he has caught a flaw in Enbridge’s risk analysis. When Riki Ott, a marine toxicologist from Valdez and international specialist in community responses to oil spills, delivers a talk at the Riverlodge Recreation Centre, the room is packed to capacity.
“I pushed council to have a survey done to know where Kitimat citizens truly stand,” says Germuth, “but they shot the motion down. I’d estimate this town is about 70/30 against the proposal. Everyone but our council has caught on that we have everything to lose, and nothing to gain.”