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CONTRIBUTION · 7th June 2010
D. H. Wagner
The project proponents and some local politicians have been quoted numerous times in the media how over the years several thousand ships including approximately 1500 tankers have gone in and out of Kitimat without incident.

This is not entirely true, and certainly not the whole story. Last summer the Petersfield completely lost steerage and struck the shore of Douglas Channel. Two years ago the B.C. Ferry ‘Queen Of The North” struck Gil Island, which lies on either of the tanker routes, and sank in 1200 feet of water. It is still leaking oil; fortunately not crude oil.

A few years before a freighter ran aground at the end of the channel near Kitimat. Luckily, it did not happen at high tide. As the tide rose it was freed with the help of a couple of tugs.

Around 1980 one of Alcan’s alumina carriers struck what was at the time called an uncharted reef and suffered a 12 ft gash near the starboard bow. I have seen that myself. There was apparently more to the story, but that was never reported.

The tankers: Those presently coming to Kitimat are of moderate size. From what I have seen they are not more than 350 ft. long. The crude oil tankers proposed for Kitimat are VLCC; Very Large Crude Carriers. They are 1000 ft. long, and sit 70 ft. in the water when loaded.

Remember it is not only the length that increases, their mass increases exponentially, as does the difficulty in maneuverability.

The cargos: For one thing they are relatively small due to the size of the tankers they are presently shipped in. They are not benign products; particularly “Sweet Condensate” a solvent for the tar sands crude is highly carcinogenic and flammable. But all of these cargos evaporate relative easily and pose no long-lasting threat to the marine environment.

Crude oil is a different story. I think the disaster in the Gulf of Mexico drives the point home to some degree. A release of tar sands crude in these cold waters would be worse.

In the event of a spill, some oil will float on top and plus minus 10% might be collected under calm conditions which rarely exist in our waters. A large portion is said to be buoyancy neutral and can float submerged at any depth and some of it will sink to the bottom.

Wherever it is, it will kill marine life and not allow it to reestablish for many decades to come.. Even then it has been shown that there will be genetic damage to the new life.

The tanker routes: There is a northern route and a southern route. They both start for outbound traffic at Kitimat down Douglas Channel. No big problem unless you lose steering like the Petersfield. The problems start at Wright Sound where the ferry sank.

Northern Route:
Leaving Douglas Channel , there is a 90 degree right hand turn north, and after a run of approximately 2 NM (nautical miles) another 110 degree left hand turn into Lewis Passage, slowly to starboard (right), a constricted passage through Otter Channel (strong tidal currents), then a 90 degree right hand turn into Principe Channel.

No problem in there. Difficulty begins at the northern end. You have to consult detailed marine charts to see that there is only a very narrow channel deep enough and close to Porcher Island past Stephens Island before you reach open ocean. The trip to ‘open’ ocean takes you approximately 240 km from Kitimat. In comparison to other world oil ports, this is a very long and challenging journey.

Southern Route:
Two alternatives haven been proposed; either way takes you around Gil Island with two considerably restricted turns into Campania Sound and from there to the Caamano Sound. A normal map will show you wide open ocean, but a detailed marine chart based on British Admiral Charts and said to be the best in the world will show rocks and reefs with very narrow passages and strong tidal currents. This is where the Alcan Ore Carrier hit the “uncharted rock”. In the summer time the area is often shrouded in dense fog in the mornings. It is 175 km from Kitimat.

Now to Enbridge:
They make incredible promises:

1. In the event of an oil spill oil booms and collection equipment will be all ready!

How will you get it the required 175 km and 240 km distances in time to be effective? Where will the necessary volunteers and contractors come from to do the cleanup? In a recent tanker spill in Korea they had up to 50,000 people a day – for a total of one million man-days – to clean up the beaches of just 10% of the amount spilled by the Exxon Valdez.

Kitimat is down to less than 8000 residents. How will you get the people there, house them, feed them, etc. There are not even beaches along the way. How will you deal with the weather? Accidents mostly happen in adverse conditions. I have sailed the waters for 35 years, been in a storm in Hecate Strait with wind gusts of over 60 knots, thought a couple of times my sailing vessel would roll right over.

2. Escort tugs.

Promises of tugs fluctuated from 3 to 1 and back to 2 per tanker.

I have a friend who was in the business for many years. He said that five tugs would be needed to handle the possible contingencies. So I put a cost estimate together; being conservative: capital cost for tugs, moorage, warehousing, written off over 10 years. Ongoing cost for wages, fuel, insurances, a moderate profit, etc. To make a long story short. By my estimate, the cost for escort for one tanker, one direction would be $200,000.

Then there are of course the fees for the two pilots promised.

Now think of the shorter routes for Prince William Sound, San Francisco, Puget Sound, L.A. etc.

Even with these shorter routes, there is a push to pare down the coverage of escort tugs because they are viewed as too expensive. If experience is any guide, the same is guaranteed to happen here.

3. Promise of the best ships, with all kinds of certifications, double hulls, etc. We all know how you can buy any certificate you need or want.

I have a Rolex watch with “Made in Switzerland” stamped all over it. It was a gift given to me as a joke; it loses 4 minutes a day and needs to be wound every day. So much for patents and certifications.

As to double hulls. The jury is still out on that. There are thinner plates used because of the structural strength of double hulls, but the biggest problems are high corrosion and extremely difficult and dangerous inspection between hulls, painting, etc.

4. Liability

In most cases you can not really find out in the end who owns the ship. Registered in a place like Liberia, Panama, etc. Owned by a holding company, which is owned by someone else. The trail gets lost and in the end the taxpayer of some country ultimately foots the bill for oil spill cleanups.

The Exxon Valdez situation was different. It was clearly known who owned the Ship. Because of the Jones Act, created to protect Seattle merchants during the Alaska/Yukon gold rush, only American built and crewed ships can operate Between American ports. And yet after 20 years the battle rages on in the courts.

For anyone who does not know yet, Enbridge’s responsibily ends at the proposed tank farm in Kitimat. Once the oil is on a VLCC Enbridge has no involvement at all, not with piloting, tanker escorts, spills and clean up, chartering and certifying of tankers.

Finally, I have not addressed the human error side of the story or the economic consequences of a distaster. With an estimated 250 tankers per year, it’s not “if a distaster will happen but “when”. Even the president of Enbridge has stated that nobody can guaranty that an accident will not happen.