By Emily Greenberg
A tanker carrying hundreds of tons of fuel lost power close to the shores of Haida Gwaii, a northern British Columbia archipelago, Thurs., Oct. 16. The vessel, nearing the shoreline, in danger of running aground and spilling fuel into the water, was rescued by a U.S. tug boat after the Canadian Coast Guard was unable to tow it to safety.
Three environmental organizations from the U.S. and Canada, including Friends of the San Juans, have dropped drift cards labeled “this could be oil” over the past year, with the most recent drop Aug. 25. The cards were dropped along oil tanker routes from the Burrard Inlet in southwest B.C., through the Gulf Islands and San Juan Islands, and out into the Strait of Juan de Fuca. The goal is to model the likely path where oil would travel in the event of a major spill.
Out of 700 cards dropped, six were found in the Haida Gwaii archipelago. Three were dropped at Turn Point on Stuart Island and the other three in Georgia Strait.
“If it can get there, it could likely get back,” Friends Director Stephanie Buffum said, alluding to the likelihood of fuel drifting into the Salish Sea, if spilled off the Haida Gwaii shorelines.
The drift card project came to life after the third largest energy company in North America, Kinder Morgan, proposed the expansion of its Trans Mountain Pipeline, which transports crude and refined oil from points as far away as Alberta and California.
If approved, the expansion of the pipeline would increase the amount of Alberta tar sand oil transported to the Vancouver, B.C. area from 300,000 to 890,000 barrels per day, and likely boost tanker traffic in the Salish Sea from five tankers per month to 34.
Islands’ Oil Spill Association is preparing.
“Because of the potential and likelihood of increased shipping vessels, we’re focusing on the westside of the islands,” IOSA’s Jackie Wolf said. “We have supplies throughout the islands, but the reality is in the event of a big spill, we’d need help.”
IOSA is a first-responder that implements strategy, and deploys booms (a temporary floating barrier) to contain spills and protect environmentally sensitive areas. IOSA and its volunteers have had recent training exercises at False Bay, Mitchell Bay and on the westside of Orcas Island, focusing on the west side of the islands in the assumption that any increase in tanker traffic will travel through Boundary Bay and into Haro Strait, Wolf said.
Nearly 11 million gallons of crude oil spilled into Alaska’s Prince William Sound when The Exxon Valdez struck Bligh Reef in 1989. The catastrophic spill marked the beginning of the end for a small group of transient killer whales, the AT1s, that made the Sound and surrounding waters their home. With the Salish Sea’s own southern residents struggling to survive, Buffum believes the risks of an oil spill outweigh any reward that the proliferation of would-be petroleum projects might bring.
“We’re in the center of fossil fuel export for North America,” she said. “Right here in little San Juan County.”
The threat of a potential oil spill in the Salish Sea is not only grabbing the attention of locals, but that of state officials as well.
Funding in the 2014 state budget allowed the Department of Ecology to study and analyze the risks to public health and safety, and the environmental impacts of transporting oil in Washington state.
The study found that prevention is the best means to reduce the risk of oil spills, and that an aggressive, well-coordinated response plan must be in place in collaboration with the state, the party responsible for the spill, and other organizations.
A public meeting to discuss preliminary findings of the study and accept public comments is Oct. 30, 5 p.m., in Olympia.
Friends submitted comments to the governor’s office, is asking islander’s to do the same, and is organizing a carpool for the Olympia forum.
The goal of the drift-card project is three-fold: to inform the community about risks associated with increased in tanker traffic, to develop a better understanding of where oil might end up in event of a spill, and to accumulate data for a final report.
That final report, to be authored by the Raincoast Conservation Foundation, Friend’s partner in the drift card project, will presented to the National Energy Board of Canada, the organization evaluating Kinder Morgan’s proposed pipeline expansion. Friends, along with its partners, will air its “comments” about the would-be expansion at the Energy Board’s meeting in March.