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Researchers map risks posed by Northern Gateway pipeline to BC parks

A Canadian-based team of scientists have produced the first peer-reviewed study on the threat Enbridge's Northern Gateway pipeline poses to B.C. parks and protected areas, finding 34 spots under threat of spills downstream of the pipeline.

Dr. Paul Paquet, the senior scientist with the Raincoast Conservation Foundation who oversaw the academic work on the paper, said researchers undertook the study because of perceived problems with Enbridge's pipeline proposal.

"The information [Enbridge] did provide was using a model that was proprietary," he said. "They wouldn't provide it to us. So that presented some obvious difficulties in assessing their own assessment."

Even so, the group found holes in the parts of the Enbridge proposal they could access, said Paquet.

"There was reference to risk associated to the development of the pipeline, but it wasn't really true risk," he said. "A true risk analysis" would've included "the probability of that event occurring, in this case a spill or a rupture times the consequences of that spill... and that had not been done."

To figure out the "true" risk, the research team plotted park coordinates against the proposed pipeline route, and looked at the effects of pumping oil, bitumen or even condensate through the parks. They found 34 protected areas under threat from spills downstream of the pipeline.

Spilt oil can flow far downhill into streams and rivers, damaging spawning beds and fish habitat. Depending on the time and magnitude of the spill, the consequences could be serious, said Paquet.

In July 2010, a pipeline owned by Enbridge Energy Partners burst, leaking over a million litres of oil sands crude that polluted a 40-kilometre stretch of Michigan's Kalamazoo River before being stopped.

If a spill "were to occur in a period where spawning is happening, then the effects would be pretty direct on salmon and other fish as well," Paquet added.

Of the 34 areas under threat, four -- Monkman Park, Gwillim Lake Park, Stuart River Park, and Fraser River Park -- were rated at highest risk of a spill, located 102 km from the pipeline compared to the average 303 km.

Sutherland River and Burnie River preservation areas were even closer, their borders less than the length of a football field from the proposed route. But more significantly, the Fraser River -- B.C.'s largest watershed and salmon run -- contains the most downstream parks at risk in the province, 11 in total.

Earlier this month, the federal government introduced a motion to speed up environmental reviews -- including the current Enbridge assessment. The move angered environmental groups and opposition politicians who said the motion would set environmental legislation back decades and deny some of the roughly 4,000 registered speakers a chance to voice their views at the Enbridge hearings.

The study, to be published in the Natural Areas Journal, was produced by scientists from the Raincoast Conservation Foundation and the Universities of Calgary and Victoria.

Adam Pez is completing a practicum at The Tyee.

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