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Oil spills 'inevitable' if Gateway proceeds

If the proposed Northern Gateway pipeline project proceeds, environmental groups and First Nations say it's only a matter of time before a spill occurs in the ecologically sensitive waters of the Hecate Strait and Queen Charlotte Sound.

Today, on the 20th anniversary of the Exxon Valdez spill, they are calling to strengthen a federal moratorium to ban tanker traffic from the north and central costs. They say there also needs to be better response capabilities to handle spills from other ships.

Karen Romans, spokesperson for the Gitga'at First Nation in Hartley Bay says people are "very afraid of the pipeline that's coming their way." The project includes two pipelines, one of which would bring oil from Alberta to a new Kitimat port, where it could be shipped to U.S. and Asian markets.

An oil spill could wipe out their primary food source, says Romans.

"When the Queen of the North sank, the oil and hydrocarbons from the ferry washed right over a very rich halibut area," she said.

"The people here still rely heavily on the salmon and halibut and the clam beds that they've been using for thousands of years."

In 1977, Kitimat Pipeline Limited proposed a project similar to Gateway, which prompted the federal government to launch the West Coast Oil Port Inquiry. It concluded that if a marine terminal were developed at Kitimat, oil spills would inevitably occur.

There has been a moratorium on oil tanker traffic on B.C.'s north and central coast since 1972, but Oonagh O'Connor, energy campaign manager for the Living Oceans Society, said the federal government is "interpreting the ban in another way."

"First they were saying, the ban is on traffic going north to south, not east west. More recently what we're hearing is that there is no moratorium, just a voluntary exclusion zone.

"It sounds like it's a weak policy open to interpretation."

According to an article by Andrew Findlay in the Georgia Straight, former energy minister Rich Neufeld informed Gateway's proponent, Enbridge, that the moratorium "is not directed at, and has no application to oil tankers sailing to or from British Columbia ports."

O'Connor said the Gateway project goes beyond Canadian interests.

"If we were to look to Alaska which has a pretty similar ecosystem, 20 years [after the Exxon Valdez] the environmental and economic impacts are still being felt."

An Enbridge spokesperson could not immediately be reached for comment.

Colleen Kimmett writes on environmental issues for The Tyee.

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