Filmmaker, activist and coastal BC native Richard Boyce has spent the past year looking at Canada’s West Coast through the lens of Enbridge’s highly controversial Northern Gateway pipeline proposal. He takes viewers on a journey along the Inner Passage, a shipping route for oceangoing vessels where a landmark proposal could see oil tankers move highly toxic diluted bitumen from Kitimat, BC – the pipeline’s terminus – to foreign markets overseas.
Boyce’s six-part video series, Coastal Tar Sands, is as scenic as it is informative. His plan is to release a feature-length documentary that will act as a retort to the proposal’s approval earlier this week.
Boyce’s knowledge of and passion for the wellbeing of BC’s environmentally sensitive central coast is obvious, and Coastal Tar Sands offers some of the most comprehensive first-hand reporting available on the subject of Northern Gateway.
The first installment of Coastal Tar Sands critiques the creative license taken by Enbridge in its television commercials promoting Northern Gateway. Boyce says the commercials aim to “sell their story to the public, that this area is a safe shipping lane,” but that Enbridge “deleted” parts of the geography to make the route seem more easily navigable.
To capture the “reality” of the coast, and the Inside Passage in particular, Boyce boards the BC Ferry vessel Northern Expedition in Port Hardy and travels to the town of Prince Rupert along BC’s central coast. During the journey, he speaks with the sarcastic captain of Northern Expedition about the Northern Gateway proposal. “They’re going to have all kinds of high-tech navigational equipment,” mocks the captain, rolling his eyes at his smirking co-pilot, “and two pilots on board!”
During a regular course change in Wright Sound, the captain calls for a planned “red zone,” which refers to an especially challenging area to navigate, meaning passengers are not allowed on the ferry’s bridge. This is the same change of course that the Queen of the North failed to make on the early morning of March 22, 2006, and instead it continued forward and broke up on the shores of Gill Island. Two passengers drowned in the wreck.
Wright Sound is the navigational confluence of five active shipping channels, “where all loaded super tankers will have to make the first of three hairpin turns greater than 90 degrees,” Boyce explains. The logistics involved in navigating giant tankers past one another through the narrow channels leading into Wright Sound are very complicated. Critics wonder: If the captain of the Queen of the North lost control at night with no other traffic around, how will super tankers fair when faced with high-traffic situations in harsh weather conditions?
Boyce’s second vignette begins by going over the process of diluting bitumen – the toxic raw material that supertankers would carry if a refinery were not constructed in Kitimat by the time the project is approved.
“An average of four tankers per day will be navigating the Inside Passage year round,” Boyce says.
Enbridge has offered public assurances that supertankers could safely navigate the Inside Passage at speeds of up to 12 knots. Boyce counters that at these speeds, supertankers can take six to eight kilometres, or between 30 minutes and a full-hour, to come to a complete stop.
Recent Enbridge print advertisements acknowledge that “project-related vessels are capable of speeds of 15 to 16 knots,” but claim the company has “committed to a vessel transit speed range from eight to 12 knots.” These self-imposed limits were made to “ensure marine safety,” according the same Enbridge ad.
“Supertankers will block waters where channels narrow and hairpin turns have to be navigated,” Boyce counters. “These loaded supertankers, tugboats and steel toe lines will make it impossible for any other marine traffic to pass.” Boyce says the high-risk route could be further complicated by inclement weather and an abundance of marine wildlife in the area.
A number of vessels have gone down off the coast of BC over the years, including the USAT Zalinski in 1946, which the Canadian Coast Guard only began pumping bunker oil out of in the summer of 2013. “The timing is no coincidence,” quips Boyce of the clean up. “The Canadian government is on record for not cleaning up oil spills and other hazardous materials. These wrecks indicate that the odds of a spill are certain if 700 supertankers per year are introduced to this coast.”
Given the formidable support for the Northern Gateway project from Canada’s Prime Minister, the BC and Alberta Premiers, the Chinese government, Enbridge and other oil and gas companies, Boyce argues that the only way to keep diluted bitumen from being shipped to China is to “make ourselves heard and stop this insanity.” His on-the-water research indicates “oil and water don’t mix.”
The third instalment of Coastal Tar Sands begins with a heartfelt, first-hand account from the resident of Hartley Bay who received the distress signal when the Queen of the North crashed and sank. The woman recounts that fateful night and her phone call to a friend whose son is trained in search and rescue.
Another resident of Hartley Bay, a Gitga’at woman and critic of the oil industry, is interviewed about the wreck of the Queen of the North (the video doesn’t include interviewees’ names). “We were trying to be realistic and said: ‘You don’t have to lift up the ship, just take out the oil’,” recalls the Gitga’at woman. “But, of course, that didn’t happen.” She explains that oil shipping contracts are ratified so that the tankers and the diluted bitumen disaster they could cause during an accident are the sole responsibility of the owners of the vessel or the vessel’s country of origin. In other words, Enbridge and other similar midstream energy companies’ responsibilities would end where the pipeline does.
A marine biologist whose research is focused on threatened and endangered whales off of BC’s coast explains the danger of running supertankers through the narrow coastal channels near Kitimat. “Ironically enough, the humpback whales are attracted to these confined channels, where prey are aggregated, which is the stickiest part of the route.”
Boyce kayaks along the colloquially named “Raincoast” and documents the precious – and challenging – environment of Wright Sound. Rain and fog dramatically reduce visibility in this area, causing Boyce and his travel partner to break into their emergency clothing stash quicker than expected. On average, the Raincoast records 4.5 metres of precipitation per annum – by comparison, Toronto receives less than one metre of precipitation annually. The tides can fluctuate up to eight metres – a change in height that Boyce points out is equal to a two-story building.
“There simply isn’t any room for all these supertankers,” he says. “What will they do when they have to pass each other?” Meanwhile, Enbridge’s position is that the confined waterways, inclement weather, unpredictable seas and endangered marine mammals seem to pose no threat project.
Boyce continues kayaking and camping among the islands of BC’s coastal rainforest. Drinking water is tough to find on an island where he sets camp, so he takes advantage of the low tide and walks to an adjoining island, bringing containers to collect freshwater. On his way back he gets caught in the rising seas, illustrating how quickly tides can change along this coast.
Scenic shots emphasize the thriving habitat of the rocky island beaches and squeezed waterways between islands, where whales, clams and marine vegetation all live. Boyce showcases their serene presence before discussing the bilge water that tankers use to maintain consistent buoyancy while the mass of their load is in constant flux.
“This bilge will be pumped from the waters of heavily industrialized ports in China,” explains Boyce. “Chemical and biological contaminants will be pumped onboard along with bilge water, along with foreign organisms and potentially invasive species. This bilge and all that it contains will later be dumped into the marine environment along the West Coast of Canada.”
Coastal Tar Sands comes full-circle when the Northern Expedition ferry crosses paths with Boyce’s small seafaring kayak and sends a wake in his direction. “This five-metre wave picked us up from behind and set us down again in the calm water,” he says. “This is the kind of backwash wave locals fear will cause erosion of the shorelines and destruction of shellfish, edible kelp and other marine life.”
The final chapter of Coastal Tar Sands heads inland to frame the problems posed by the twinned pipeline required by the Northern Gateway proposal.
“The plan is for each tunnel to be 6.5 kilometres long and drilled under the base of two massive mountains,” explains Boyce, who travels to Kitimat by air and shares the birds’ eye view. “As a part of Enbridge’s national public relations campaign, animated TV ads make it look easy to tunnel through these mountains ... flying over the Coast Mountains from Vancouver to Kitimat didn’t look one bit like the images the Enbridge corporation has been showing Canadians to promote its pipeline route.”
Boyce then reemphasizes the fact that already cramped shipping lanes will only be further constricted by hundreds of supertankers each year. He also warns that Hecate Strait – the body of water that separates the Queen Charlotte Islands from the BC coast – is “known to mariners as one of the most treacherous seas in the world.”
Working on the assumption that a large-scale spill is likely to occur, Boyce argues, “scientists have proved that bitumen bonds with sediment in water, causing it to sink to the bottom particularly when the surface of the water is disturbed by turbulence. In the event of a pipeline leak, loading accident or supertanker spill, bitumen will destroy the marine environment with little chance of recovery.”
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