New Information from Expert Reports - January 2012
January 20, 2012
The Pipeline Proposal
Enbridge proposes to build a 36 inch oil export pipeline and a 20 inch condensate import pipeline from Alberta to Kitimat BC. The oil pipeline would transport raw tar sands crude oil (known as bitumen) diluted with the thinner condensate. These hydrocarbons are toxic to fish at low concentrations. The 1,172 km pipeline would cross over 600 fish-bearing streams in British Columbia, including some of the most important salmon habitats in the upper Fraser, Skeena and Kitimat watersheds. An estimated 225 supertankers per year would navigate Hecate Strait and Douglas Channel to a new terminal at Kitimat.
The proposed pipeline crosses numerous streams in the Upper Bulkley and Morice. Select this link to see a map: http://friendsofmoricebulkley.ca/images/uploads/article_uploads/Morice_Bulkley_Pipeline_Map.pdf Thirty km south of Houston, the pipeline runs parallel to the Morice for 34 km, crossing numerous feeder streams. It crosses the Morice downstream of Morice Lake, and then continues 26 km west up Gosnell Creek into the Hazelton Ranges of the Coast Mountains. In the Coast Mountains, two mountain-top tunnels are planned, crossing the headwaters of the Zymotz (Copper) River and then dropping into the Kitimat watershed.
When the information was requested through the Joint Review Panel, Enbridge admitted that a major oil spill on the Morice River would be into the Bulkley River just upstream of Telkwa within 12 hours. Their modeling projections ended after 12 hours but, obviously, the hydrocarbons would continue moving downstream from that point.
Potential Landslides along the Pipeline Corridor
The Bulkley Valley Centre for Natural Resources Research and Management, Smithers, released an independent peer reviewed report on the geomorphology of the pipeline corridor from Burns Lake to Kitimat, through the Coast Mountains, in September 2011. Jim Schwab, the author, has over 30 years of experience dealing with landslides in this region as a researcher with the Ministry of Forests. http://www.bvcentre.ca
Schwab’s report indicates that slope instability in the Morice has the potential to rupture the proposed pipelines. Earthflows in the glaciolacustrine sediments (deposited by glacial lakes) have been reactivated by road construction and wildfires. The proposed pipeline crosses an historic earth flow west of Owen Creek and there are risks from potential earthflows along the route adjacent the Morice. Along Gosnell Creek, shifting channels on active alluvial fans have made 10 km of the forestry road difficult to maintain (costing millions of dollars over the past 30 years) and will present challenges to the pipeline. There is considerable lateral bank instability at the proposed Crystal Creek and Gosnell Creek crossing. The volcanic bedrock of the Hazelton Mountains is inherently unstable as evident in many prehistoric landslides. Three documented large landslides have severed the natural gas pipeline since its construction in the early 1970’s; large landslides have also impacted forest roads and highways.
The author concludes as follows: “The unstable mountainous terrain across west central BC is not a safe location for pipelines. Eventually a landslide will sever a pipeline. An alternative safer route through BC needs investigation”.
Morice Fisheries at Risk
Local fisheries biologist Dave Bustard and hydrologist Mike Miles have recently completed an analysis of the potential effects of a pipeline rupture and subsequent clean-up efforts to river processes, fish and fish habitat on the Morice. This report was prepared for Northwest Institute for Bioregional Research, Smithers, and can be downloaded here. http://www.northwestinstitute.ca
The pipeline route runs parallel to 34 km of the most important spawning and rearing habitat in the watershed for chinook, coho and pink salmon, as well as steelhead trout. This section of the river has formed a wide floodplain that contains numerous side channels, log jams and wetlands. This 34 km floodplain section of the Morice has more than 1000 log jams and comprises over 300 km of shoreline fish habitat.
The Morice River supports the largest chinook salmon run in the Skeena River; and the Skeena River is the second largest chinook river in BC. The Morice summer steelhead run is also the largest in the Skeena River. The Morice-Bulkley is a world-class river renowned for wild summer-run steelhead populations. Anglers require special licenses to fish these classified waters, and only catch-and-release is allowed. The Morice, particularly the floodplain section, also supports a large recovering population of coho salmon, pink salmon, and blue-listed bull trout, and is a corridor for sockeye salmon adults and smolts moving to and from upstream spawning areas. The proposed pipeline route runs along a floodplain section of the Morice that provides critical spawning habitat and is the most productive rearing area for millions of juvenile salmon and steelhead that are present year-round.
An oil pipeline rupture would contaminate the log jams, side channels and shoreline areas that comprise key fish habitats. The more volatile fractions of the oil would be immediately toxic to fish and developing eggs located in this reach. The heavier bitumen components would slowly release polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) that would have chronic effects on salmon egg development and juveniles rearing in these habitats for many years.
The volume of oil in the pipeline is sufficiently large that, even if the valves were closed immediately after a rupture, a large volume of oil could still drain into the environment. Response to a spill would be hindered by the remoteness of the area and poor access to the network of log jams and side channels. Water velocities in Morice River are too fast to use booms, absorbents and skimmers to collect spills for much of the year, and ice conditions and low streamflows would hamper efforts to contain a spill in the winter.
Snow and ice cover in winter and high sediment loads during spring run-off, along with the tendency for bitumen to sink and move into the gravel on the river bed or banks, would make it impractical to recover spilled oil once it has entered the river. Clean-up attempts, such as collecting oil-covered logs and gravel, or burning oiled logs on gravel bars, could cause long-term habitat impacts. Observations on Pine River in north central BC indicate cleanup attempts following an oil spill in 2000 resulted in dramatic channel instability. Cleanup attempts in the Morice could lead to similar channel destabilization, with a subsequent loss of critical habitats for fish.
Bitumen attached to debris and in the spawning and shoreline gravels would persist and affect salmon and steelhead survival in Morice River for an extended period. Habitat impacts could similarly persist for decades. There do not appear to be any proven techniques for effectively mitigating these impacts.
For those wanted to dig into the details, this report provides a detailed summary of fish and habitat impacts related to the Pine River spill north of Prince George and some of the science related to toxic effects of hydrocarbons learned from the Exxon Valdez spill.
Diluted Bitumen and Pipeline Safety
A recent review of pipeline and tanker safety by the Natural Resources Defense Council, Pembina Institute and Living Oceans Society describes the unique challenges and risks associated with transporting diluted bitumen. Diluted bitumen may weaken pipelines at a faster rate than conventional oil due to its acidic, sulphuric, abrasive and viscous nature. When tar sands pipelines spill, the spills are especially hazardous due to the explosive properties of diluted bitumen and the concentration of toxins found in bitumen, like benzene and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons. Further, cleaning up a bitumen spill is very challenging using conventional cleanup technologies like booms and skimmers because heavy bitumen can sink in water. The authors contend that current pipeline safety regulations in Canada do not address the unique challenges associated with shipping diluted bitumen. Both a summary version and the full report are found here: http://www.nrdc.org/international/pipelinetrouble