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Jack Knox column: Pipeline talk skips from 'if' to 'show me the money'

Jul 26 2012

On the night of Sept. 25, 2009, the bulk carrier MV Peters-field pulled out of Kitimat bound for Crofton - and ran smack into the side of Douglas Channel, smashing its front end.

The ship had a qualified pilot on board to guide it through local waters and its progress was being monitored electronically by marine traffic controllers. Still, when the wonky navigational gear that had been giving the Bahamian-flagged vessel problems on the way from China went sideways again, the narrow confines of Douglas Channel didn't leave much room for error. Bang, onto the rocks.

"What's to stop a loaded crude carrier from doing that?" asks Allan Hughes.

Hughes is the union representative for the 100 coast guard workers who watch over marine traffic in B.C. They have a lot of questions about Enbridge's proposal to ship Alberta heavy oil from Kitimat, particularly with Ottawa reducing safety measures on the coast.

Much ado has been made about the federal government's budget-cutting plan to shut the coast guard operation in Vancouver. Less attention has been paid to the closing of two other marine communications and traffic services centres in Comox and Ucluelet, which will leave just the two remaining stations in Sidney and Prince Rupert to handle the entire West Coast. Not only does that mean a loss of local knowledge, but half of the coast could go unmonitored when communications systems fail, Hughes says.

At the same time, the feds want to scrap a requirement that approaching ships call in once they are 50 miles from Vancouver Island. Instead, they could come within 12 miles before doing so. That's scary when considering the potential hazards that need to be dealt with before the 12-mile limit, particularly on foggy summer days when trawlers and hake draggers compete for space with cargo ships.

Indeed, the 50-mile limit was implemented after the Japanese fish processor Tenyo Maru sank in a collision with the Chinese freighter Tuo Hai off the entrance to Juan de Fuca Strait in 1991. One of the factors in that case was the language barrier separating Canadian authorities and crew on the bridge of the Tuo Hai.

Such problems still arise, Hughes says. It can take several minutes to extract even the most basic information from bridge watch-keepers whose grasp of English is tenuous - and when you're in congested waters, you don't have minutes to react.

Hughes' members tell him language issues mean some foreign-flagged ships pose a higher risk of grounding or being involved in collisions, which makes those members wonder whose tankers would carry the heavy, gooey Alberta bitumen from Kitimat.

Note that B.C.'s northern waters are sufficiently treacherous that for decades tankers carrying Alaska crude have complied with a voluntary ban on sailing them. Instead, oil-carriers stay well out to sea before turning into Juan de Fuca Strait. How is it that an area deemed too dangerous for U.S. tankers is safe enough for others?

"The fact they intend to transit Hecate Strait or Dixon Entrance in winter is a disaster waiting to happen," Hughes says.

Hughes also wants to know what kind of tugs would be used to escort tankers out of Kitimat, how far they would be required to go, and where rescue tugs - the kind that accompany disabled ships at sea - would be stationed.

These are the same kind of questions being asked by the B.C. government, which Monday released a 54-page report that spent a lot of ink on the question of who would have to pay for an oil spill. The document noted Exxon has so far contributed $3.4 billion to what could be $7 billion in cleanup costs related to 1989's Exxon Valdez disaster, the 35th-largest spill worldwide since 1967. Would the carriers of Alberta heavy oil have pockets that deep?

Those numbers were quickly lost this week in the B.C.-Alberta squabble over who would get how much of the tax money from the Northern Gateway project.

Funny how in a single day the debate moved from whether B.C. should back the pipeline to how much we should get for doing so.

Before fighting over how to divide the pie, shouldn't we decide whether to bake it at all?

And shouldn't we be asking Ottawa why it is cutting coastal safety at the same time it raises the risk?

jknox@timescolonist.com

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