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Gambling B.C.'s Parks for a Pipeline Payoff?

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British Columbia's parks are a public trust containing regionally, nationally and internationally significant natural and cultural values, so a recent B.C. Parks Annual Report states. How true. These special places -- comprising roughly 12 per cent of the province -- represent our society's investments in conservation that we have wisely safeguarded for our children and grandchildren.

Or have we? Recent peer-reviewed evidence suggests these priceless investments are at risk. Scientists from the Raincoast Conservation Foundation and the Universities of Victoria and Calgary have produced the first-ever scientific paper about the potential ecological risks to B.C. parks associated with the proposed Enbridge Northern Gateway pipeline. The paper, "Pipelines and Parks; evaluating external risks to protected areas from the proposed Northern Gateway oil transport project," will be published in the Natural Areas Journal.

The Northern Gateway project would comprise one of the largest oil pipelines in North America and would transport more than 79,000,000 litres of petroleum daily (500,000 barrels). The pipeline would extend some 1,100 kilometres from Bruderheim, Alberta to Kitimat, B.C. A twin pipeline would pump condensate, a toxic substance, from Kitimat to the tar sands to be used in dilution of the crude bitumen.

The Raincoast-led team of scientists used a Geographic Information System (GIS) analysis to determine that 34 of B.C.'s protected areas were downstream from the pipeline, two within 50 metres, and potentially at risk from oil spills. Twenty-one parks are located within 200 kilometres as the water (or oil) flows. This might seem like a long way away until you consider that B.C. is blessed with so many fast flowing rivers. The 670 kilometre B.C. portion of this proposed pipeline would include 591 water crossings, 532 of which are fish bearing.

Should British Columbians be concerned? Ask people in Michigan. The U.S. government's Environmental Protection Agency reports that when an Enbridge pipeline ruptured near Marshall, Michigan in July 2010, the spill released an estimated 3.1 million litres into the Kalamazoo River and flowed at least 50 kilometres downstream. Clean up is still ongoing. The Michigan Department of Community Health is advising that people not touch the water or eat fish from the area until further notice.

How likely is a spill of this magnitude in B.C.? In a 2007 journal article, researchers from Simon Fraser University calculated that the average oil spill from pipelines between 1992 to 2002 among eight major spill events in Canada was 1,560,00 litres (about 10,000 barrels), with the largest spill being over 3,975,000 litres (25,000 barrels). According to the National Energy Board of Canada, a "medium-sized" (10,000 to 1,000,000 litres) spill has occurred on average every sixteen years per 1,000 kilometres section of oil pipeline operating in Canada. Do the math: expect two of these catastrophes over the 1,100 kilometre pipeline's proposed 30 year life.

How about promises of world-class safety protocols? The Polaris Institute has calculated that 804 spills occurred on Enbridge pipelines between 1999 and 2010. These spills released approximately 26 million litres of hydrocarbons into the environment.

Given this scenario of probable hazards, the researchers also developed a scientific model that ranked parks according to their relative risk. The model incorporated the probability of oil -- once spilled -- contaminating a park and the consequence or likely impact of oil exposure. In general, higher risk parks were not any closer to the pipeline than other protected areas but were on average of larger size. This is because larger parks are of greater ecological value, and the consequence of oil exposure to them would be high.

Here is something additional to ponder: The Fraser River watershed, which hosts B.C.'s most economically valuable salmon runs, contained the most parks at risk. Some of these protected areas are the birthplace (literally) of sockeye salmon, which support a significant industry as well as many livelihoods and cultures in our province. Salmon, of course, also fulfill large ecological and spiritual roles for ecosystems and people in B.C.

This study helps British Columbians understand yet another gamble they would have to accept should the Northern Gateway pipeline be built. And those deliberating on whether they support the pipeline would do well to remember this truism: in gambling, the many must lose in order that the few may win.

This article was co-authored by Dr. Chris Darimont, science director for Raincoast Conservation Foundation and Christina Service, a biologist with Raincoast.