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BC Warned of Unaddressed Tanker Risks as TMX Ramps Up

Government says it’s up to the federal government to ensure that spill measures are in place.

Andrew MacLeod 10 May 2024The Tyee

Andrew MacLeod is The Tyee’s legislative bureau chief in Victoria and the author of All Together Healthy (Douglas & McIntyre, 2018). Find him on X or reach him at .

The B.C. government remains worried about spills as the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion goes into operation but is limited in what it can do, Minister of Environment and Climate Change Strategy George Heyman said this week.

“Our government has continually shared British Columbians’ concerns about the numerous potential impacts of a spill, whether it’s to our environment, economy or human health,” Heyman said. “All we can do in terms of operation of the pipeline or the tanker traffic is to urge the federal government to ensure that it is safe.”

As of April 30 the pipeline is authorized by the federal government to carry crude oil from Trans Mountain’s Edmonton Terminal in Alberta to its Westridge Marine Terminal in Burnaby. It twins the existing Trans Mountain pipeline and triples its capacity to 890,000 barrels per day and will result in more tanker traffic in Burrard Inlet.

The minister made the comments in response to a Wednesday letter to him from 18 individuals and more than 65 groups. Among the signatories were several local mayors, councillors, former Vancouver mayor Gregor Robertson, Saanich-Gulf Islands MP Elizabeth May and environmentalist David Suzuki.

“An essential major safety measure to save lives and protect human health in the event of a tanker spill in Burrard Inlet or the Salish Sea is not operational,” the letter said, referring to the requirement for health authorities to co-ordinate with other agencies on evacuations and other emergency response tasks.

“Clarification of responsibilities and processes for these life-saving tasks, what resources are required and who has the capacity for the work, has not been established,” it said, citing a human health risk assessment completed in 2023 by the consulting firm Intrinsik.

“The assessment includes assumptions regarding risk estimates that do not follow B.C. Ministry of Health guidance, which led the health authorities to disagree with conclusions of the risk assessment,” said the letter. “It remains unclear how or if this critical deficiency can be resolved.”

A joint statement to The Tyee from Michael Schwandt, medical health officer for Vancouver Coastal Health, and Emily Newhouse, medical health officer for Fraser Health, confirmed that they had provided advice but did not specify what it was.

“Medical health officers with both health authorities provided their feedback on the Human Health Risk Assessment and the implications for mitigation actions necessary to protect human health,” they said. “The provincial Environmental Assessment Office is responsible for determining if the condition on the Environmental Assessment Certificate has been met.”

They said they are committed to advocating on behalf of the public’s health. “Vancouver Coastal Health and Fraser Health medical health officers will work collaboratively with provincial and local agencies and boards to increase understanding of health implications of emergencies and possible risk mitigation steps.”

A spokesperson for one of the health authorities said the advice is not available publicly, but The Tyee could file a freedom of information request for it.

The letter to Heyman warned that if an Aframax tanker spilled two-thirds of its load in English Bay and even a small amount reached shore, it could require the immediate evacuation of 25,000 people and as many as 105,000 if the highly flammable spilled material ignited. Aframax tankers are medium-sized and can carry about 600,000 barrels of oil.

“Fire- and smoke-related mass casualties would be expected, along with hospitalizations from cardio-respiratory conditions and skin exposures to carcinogens for those who join in cleanup, and contact the spilled diluted bitumen,” it said. “Damages, including mental health impacts, would be potentially present for years to come.”

Authorities aren’t adequately prepared for such an emergency, the letter said, and the B.C. Environmental Assessment Office should advise the federal government, which also owns the pipeline, that tankers won’t be allowed to carry material from it through the First and Second Narrows “until there is a credible plan to protect the health and safety of people in the region from the elevated risk of a Trans Mountain pipeline oil spill.”

Heyman said he had read the letter and that both the B.C. Court of Appeal and the Supreme Court of Canada have made it clear that marine shipping and tanker traffic is a federal responsibility.

The province has advocated for more spill response resources and introduced the requirement for the project to produce the human health risk assessment, he said, work that was done in consultation with the health authorities, Metro Vancouver and Indigenous nations.

“We have received it, we are currently reviewing it and I’m working with the staff in the EAO to get updated regularly on any future or further steps we need to take to ensure the report is what we intend it to be, an assessment report that will ensure that measures are in place to protect human health in British Columbia,” he said.

“I’m asking them to work very closely with the health authorities, with local governments and with Indigenous nations to ensure that this plan is robust and that everyone has the capacity on affected areas of British Columbia to implement both a plan and potentially evacuation routes if necessary,” he said. “We take this seriously.”

On April 30 the Canada Energy Regulator announced it had given authorization for the Trans Mountain expansion to operate.

The regulator’s ongoing role “to ensure Trans Mountain adheres to conditions, regulations, codes and standards will continue throughout the life of the pipeline,” it said. The pipeline is subject to 156 conditions “related to environmental protection, pipeline and facility integrity, safety, Indigenous relations, socio-economic matters, emergency management, worker accommodations and financial assurances, among other things,” it said.  [Tyee]

Read more: Energy, Health, Environment

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