PRINCE RUPERT, B.C. - A half dozen Pacific humpback whales broke the grey surface of the ocean Tuesday just a few nautical miles away from where proponents and critics are sparing before a federal panel that is weighing the future of the Northern Gateway oil pipeline.
It was a fairly calm day for storm season in the North Pacific, where Brian Falconer, Long-time mariner and marine operations co-ordinator for the Raincoast Conservation Foundation, said waves can swell to 26 metres high.
But the project assessment by Calgary-based Enbridge (TSX:ENB) said waves along the tanker route reach 10.2 metres.
"I've sailed on this coast for 35 years," said Falconer, and that is "very, very misleading."
"It doesn't match anybody's experience on the coast. Their portrayal of the weather conditions, their portrayal of duration of the fog, they don't match," he said as the Tsimshian Storm ferry swayed to and fro with the waves.
The company uses variously averages, mean values and other "manipulations" of weather, storm conditions and shipping traffic to paint a more favourable picture of the oil pipeline and tanker port, he said.
"They're not lying. They've just chosen a way of expressing it that is meaningless in assessing risk," Falconer told reporters who took part in the trip organized by the World Wildlife Fund Canada to show the tanker route.
A couple of times a month during the winter, the area will see waves that pummel even huge container ships. Winds can gust on rare occasions to 70-some knots an hour and there is far more shipping traffic than presented when smaller and fishing vessels are included in the figures, he said.
"It's a manipulation of statistics... the miracle of averaging," Falconer said.
Todd Nogier, a spokesman for Northern Gateway, said company experts will be questioned under oath about the data used in the assessment later in the hearings, and expect to fully explain their choices.
He said the statistics used by Enbridge represent the average, and not the most extreme events.
Ship pilots normally monitor closely all forecasts and weather information, and act accordingly, he said.
"They would adjust their scheduling and their route to avoid these extreme weather events," Nogier said.
The supertankers that will carry oil from the proposed port in Kitimat only need to have one major spill in 30 years in order to cause irreparable harm to the coast from Alaska to Vancouver Island, say conservation groups.
In the hearing room, a panel of company experts testified under oath for a second day about the environmental and socio-economic assessment of the marine component of the project.
Maria Morellato, a lawyer for Coastal First Nations, asked about the possible risks to local fisheries, suggesting the company is basing its assessment on incomplete information.
Jeff Green, who is responsible for the environmental assessment for the pipeline, said that in some cases traditional and cultural resource use information was not provided to the company.
"As more information comes forward from any of the coastal First Nations, that information will be welcomed and it will be used," Green said, opening the door for consultation that so far many aboriginal groups have declined.
"If you've reached a conclusion, is there any point in providing that information?" Morellato responded.
"Absolutely," Green said, adding that the end of the panel process will not be the end of the environmental assessment process for the project.
The province of British Columbia will not be questioning the current panel, but is scheduled to return to the hearings in February to question a panel on marine emergency preparedness and response.
The panel will hear testimony on the tanker port and shipping assessments of the project until Monday, and return to Prince Rupert for 10 more weeks of hearings in the new year.
Earlier, lawyers for Ecojustice, which represents a coalition of conservation groups including Raincoast, asked company experts about the risks to marine mammals, including endangered humpback and killer whales.
It's not just a major spill that poses a risk, said Darcy Dobell, vice-president of Pacific region World Wildlife Fund Canada. Tanker strikes, noise pollution and displacement from feeding grounds pose a routine risk, she said.