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Bundled in a down jacket Andy Rosenberger bobs on the Achiever, a 20-metre research vessel in the Strait of Georgia. On deck, students from Gulf Islands Secondary School wait to reach Turn Point, a blind, narrow corner in the shipping lane en route to Vancouver’s harbour; there, they will release 225 drift cards simulating how oil from a ruptured tanker might spread through the area.
Earlier this summer, the federal government greenlit (subject to 209 conditions) the Northern Gateway pipeline connecting Edmonton to Kitimat, where tankers will then haul oil to international ports; meanwhile, the National Energy Board has opened its regulatory review of Kinder Morgan’s proposal to twin its own Trans Mountain pipeline, also transporting diluted bitumen from Alberta’s oil sands, to Burnaby. That expansion would increase tanker traffic in Burrard Inlet from about one per week to one per day.
In preparation, Rosenberger, a biologist at the Sidney-based Raincoast Conservation Foundation, started looking at oil spill studies in the Salish Sea off the southwestern coast. Drift cards have been used for decades off the Washington coast to study surface currents, but minimal data were available for B.C. So he and a team of 10 started their own study, preparing thousands of bright-yellow biodegradable cards.
Tankers leaving Burnaby’s Westridge terminal first negotiate Canada’s busiest port, then pass through the dense Gulf and San Juan archipelago, threading between Vancouver Island and the Olympic Peninsula before reaching the open Pacific. The researchers identified nine risky points, where they dropped cards last fall and winter, and this spring.
The study relies on citizen science: the four-by-six cards are stamped with SalishSeaSpillMap.org, where finders can report when and where they are discovered. “We were really interested in a project that combines science and public engagement,” explains Alexandra Woodsworth, an environmental scientist and energy campaigner with the Vancouver-based Georgia Strait Alliance, a partner in the study.
Their initial findings were consistent with Kinder Morgan’s internal models: cards dropped in Burrard Inlet were found onshore within 48 hours, and those south of the Fraser were found on nearby Gulf and San Juan islands. However, where Kinder Morgan’s model expires after 15 days, the Raincoast collection is ongoing. Months later, cards were found north along the Sunshine Coast to Quadra Island, south along Washington’s coast, along the west coast of Vancouver Island in places like Tofino and Cape Scott, and north all the way to Haida Gwaii.
“We don’t suggest a large slick will end up in Haida Gwaii,” clarifies Rosenberger. Most oil would strand on shorelines closer to the spill, and some would disperse and degrade. The distant recoveries indicate a potential impact zone. Kinder Morgan estimates that 64 percent of oil from a large spill at Turn Point could be recovered — if five new coastal oil spill response bases are built. Given current response capabilities, the estimate is five percent.
This concerns Woodsworth. “The Salish Sea is an incredibly biodiverse region, from the tiniest invertebrates up to killer whales,” she says. “You look at the map of Kinder Morgan’s model of the spill and you look at critical whale habitat, and they’re one and the same.”
Raincoast and GSA will present evidence at the NEB hearings, but Woodsworth is also focusing on community mobilization. “What happens outside the hearings on this campaign is as, or more, important in terms of winning this fight.”