In 1974, when my friend Mary Kay Becker’s book Superspill was published, it had only been two years since an oil spill at Cherry Point in Northwest Washington state had set in motion the genetic mutation and rapid decline of the Chinook salmon’s base feed stock of Pacific herring. A fictional account of a 1978 grounding at Bird Rocks, Superspill added to the clamor for stricter regulations on oil tanker shipping in Puget Sound, leading to the federal imposition in 1977 of size limits on tankers, requirements for double hulls and tug escorts. Now, forty years later, Canada is poised to dramatically increase both the size and volume of oil tanker traffic between Port Metro Vancouver and China. Thanks to the Tar Sands in Alberta — the most carbon intensive industrial project in the world — and the backwardness of the Canadian Government, Puget Sound and the Salish Sea face a disastrous future.
As reported in the June 2, 2011 issue of The Tyee, due to extensive First Nations resistance to a new right-of-way for a proposed oil terminal at Kitimat, British Columbia, Kinder Morgan is planning to expand its pipeline capacity to Vancouver by six-fold. If this is allowed to happen, Oil Sands crude could be the catalyst for an Exxon-Valdez type spill in the Salish Sea. If the Suezmax tankers that carry one million barrels of crude begin calling at Vancouver, that and the proposed ten-fold increase over 2005 tanker transits mean it’s a matter of when, not if, a major oil spill devastates the Salish Sea ecosystem.
Combined with the proposed Gateway Pacific Terminal bulk coal carriers calling at Cherry Point, the congestion of shipping could become a nightmare for the Cooperative Vessel Traffic Service managing the already active Special Operating Area at the intersection of Haro Strait and Boundary Pass, let alone piloting into Vancouver’s narrow Burrard Inlet. While this disaster waiting to happen might avoid Superspill‘s Bird Rocks of Rosario Strait, the devastation would be beyond most people’s imagination.
As Joel Connelly reports at the Seattle P-I, tanker traffic in the San Juan Islands would soar from 5 to 34 a month if the Kinder Morgan Tar Sands pipeline to Vancouver is tripled in size. While the Canadian Government has denounced opponents to the pipeline expansion as radicals, a government-appointed panel in Ottawa said Canada is not prepared to deal with an oil spill in the Strait of Juan de Fuca and in the waters off southern Vancouver Island.
In this short video by the Wilderness Committee, threats from North American fossil fuel export expansion are put in context of saving the Salish Sea, as well as drawing a line in the sand on climate change.
Salish Sea Marine Sanctuary
The Salish Sea Foundation proposes an international Salish Sea Marine Sanctuary as a means of partnering Coast Salish First Nations, British Columbia and Washington State in protecting and restoring the estuarine ecosystem of Puget Sound, Strait of Juan de Fuca and Strait of Georgia. With eight million people now inhabiting the Salish Sea watershed, this seems like a timely and reasonable idea.
Geographically, Cascadia corresponds with the Pacific Northwest coastal temperate rainforest, also known as The Lands and Waters of Salmon Nation. Named after the Cascade Range of mountains from British Columbia to California, it is a coastal region noteworthy for its earthquakes and volcanic activity. A region that includes the Skeena, Fraser, Columbia, Coquille and Klamath rivers, Cascadia is presently targeted for a massive energy export assault. From Kitimat, B.C. to Coos Bay, Oregon, the pipelines, rail lines and shipping terminals proposed for exporting Tar Sands crude and Powder River coal would escalate the threat to coastal waters tenfold over the next decade. While accustomed to minor spills of oil and coal in coastal waters, the populations of the Salish Sea in particular are woefully unprepared for an energy invasion of this magnitude.
As a new study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences reports, the extreme hydrocarbons unearthed by the Alberta Tar Sands open pit mines are extremely toxic. As the study concludes, Tar Sands oil — the subject of a pending U.S. Coast Guard risk assessment for Salish Sea shipping — is highly carcinogenic, causing infertility and immune disorders in humans, and mutations in fish. As the most destructive project in North America, the Alberta Tar Sands — slated for expansion if the Port Metro Vancouver oil terminal is allowed to double in size — has the potential to spread that toxicity from the Athabasca River to the Fraser. Looking at the NASA photo of the Fraser River plume into the Salish Sea, it isn’t hard to imagine the devastation a pipeline leak or vessel spill there would cause.
Heavy Oil Light Laws
While the Government of Canada is busy dismantling its environmental protection laws in order to accommodate its turbocharged oil export scheme, some in the US Government are concerned about the risks posed by vastly increased numbers of oil tankers transiting the Salish Sea. As noted in The Tyee in January 2013, U.S. Senator Maria Cantwell of Washington state recently added an amendment requiring the U.S. Coast Guard to assess that risk by June 2013. Of particular concern to Senator Cantwell regarding the export of Tar Sands heavy oil bitumen via tankers through U.S. waters, is the toxicity and additional clean-up challenges it poses.
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