Stinking. Toxic. Explosive. These words could describe the cloud of fumes filling the airshed of the Lower Mainland if there was a tanker spill of diluted bitumen in Vancouver harbour. The public health emergency and potential evacuation of large parts of the city might easily overshadow the more well known consequences of an oil spill as local authorities struggle to move hundreds of thousands of people out of harm's way.
This nightmare scenario for Vancouver residents and local emergency planners has been created by a confluence of global forces, corporate decisions and lack of government oversight that may result in a steep increase in tanker shipments of hazardous cargo through the "greenest city in the world" and regional home to more than two million people.
Companies operating in the oil sands are increasingly shipping unrefined bitumen because it is more profitable for them to refine it elsewhere. This lack of value-added processing, supported by the Harper government, not only limits the long-term employment and economic benefits of bitumen extraction, it also creates enormous public safety hazards downstream.
Bitumen is too thick to pump through a pipeline so it must be diluted with a variety of volatile and toxic chemicals imported from elsewhere around the world. This mixture is called "diluted bitumen" and is more abrasive, corrosive and acidic than conventional crude, and typically must be piped under higher temperatures and pressures -- raising the risk of pipeline failures.
The additional risk is that the toxic solvents used to dilute bitumen can quickly evaporate when released into the environment, increasing public safety risks and complicating clean-up efforts if the heavy bitumen sinks into water.
When the pipeline carrying diluted bitumen ruptured near Kalamazoo, Michigan in 2010, these chemicals began off-gassing into the local area, acutely impacting the health of almost 60 per cent of residents living within a mile of the spill.
People reported nausea, vomiting, nosebleeds, headaches, coughing and dizziness from exposure to chemicals such as benzene and toluene, which are known carcinogens.
Local authorities implemented a three-week voluntary evacuation of residents to limit exposure to dangerous levels of benzene detected in the air more than a mile from the creek where the spill occurred.
Even weeks after the accident local residents reported smelling strong chemical odors up to 50 kilometres away.
Few escape routes
The challenges of responding to tanker spill of diluted bitumen in Vancouver harbour would be far more daunting [click here for a visual explanation created by The Tyee].
There are more than 2.5 million people in the Lower Mainland. The area has limited escape routes that are choked with cars even during normal rush hour traffic. The prevailing winds are also from the west, which would blow the volatile chemicals used to dilute bitumen into the confined airshed of the Fraser Valley.
This scenario would be worse in the summer when the Fraser Valley acts like a "closed circulation cell," as a meteorologist contacted by The Tyee explained. Summer winds tend to carry pollution from the city up the Fraser Valley to Abbotsford, which often endures the worst air quality in the Lower Mainland. Rather than quickly dissipate beyond Abbotsford, the pollution tends to stagnate and cycle back towards Vancouver under closed circulation cell conditions.
Emergency planners might be forced to choose between advising people to stay indoors and risk dangerous exposure to airborne chemicals, or try and organize an evacuation on a massive scale into areas which might not be any safer. Put another way, there are not that many motel rooms in Hope, and the plume of poison would be blowing that way anyway.
This situation is not far-fetched. Kinder Morgan is proposing to more than double the pipeline capacity from Alberta to Burnaby by 2017 to 750,000 barrels per day. This would result in up to 20 tankers per month moving through Vancouver harbour. Each of these ships must transit under the Second Narrows bridge during a 20-minute high tide window, with less than two metres of under-keel clearance.
If a loaded tanker became grounded in the channel, assist tugs would have little time to free the vessel before it became perched on a portion of the hull in a fast falling tide, as the 20-km long Indian Arm fjord drains towards the ocean.
Industry representatives have assured local government that these tanker transits are done in "total safety," citing the move towards double-hulled vessels as a rationale. However, even double-hulled vessels are not structurally designed to withstand supporting the weight of a loaded tanker on a portion of the hull.
Aframax tankers now making these dangerous transits can hold 40 times as much diluted bitumen as spilled into the Kalamazoo River. There are plans to move to larger Suezmax tankers that carry 80 times the Kalamazoo spill amount. A spill of that magnitude might make large parts of the Lower Mainland uninhabitable for weeks.
Chemicals in diluted bitumen kept secret
Oil sands operators have considered the composition of diluted bitumen blends a trade secret and regulators are often not provided detailed information on the types of chemicals they might have to respond to in the event of a spill and subsequent public health emergency. What information is available is not reassuring. The Material Safety Data Sheet (MSDS) for one common variety of diluted bitumen warns:
"High vapour concentrations are irritating to the eyes, nose, throat and lungs; may cause headaches and dizziness; may be anesthetic and may cause other central nervous system effects, including death. Hydrogen sulphide gas may be released. Hydrogen sulphide may cause irritation, breathing failure, coma and death, without necessarily any warning odour being sensed. Avoid breathing vapours or mists."
Expert testimony last year to the U.S. Congress also flagged the possibility of off-gassing bitumen solvents "exploding with catastrophic results." The MSDS sheet from Imperial Oil states "Extremely flammable; material will readily ignite at normal temperatures... may release vapours that form flammable mixtures at or above the flash point."
Cuts to response preparation
The lead oil spill response agency is the federal government, but it seems little has been done to prepare for the air quality emergency created if a tanker accident happened in the Lower Mainland. A recent auditor general's report on spill preparedness revealed that the Canadian Coast Guard has not done a national risk assessment of oil spills from ships since 2000 -- long before Alberta started scaling up deliveries of diluted bitumen to the B.C. coast.
Rather than increasing capacity to respond to potential spills, the Harper government is slashing front line staff. More than 760 jobs are slated to be lost from the Coast Guard. The B.C. command centre for emergency oil spills is being closed and moved to Quebec. Almost all of the Fisheries and Oceans scientists involved in pollution monitoring learned recently that they are being fired.
So why has Vancouver become the major Pacific outflow for unrefined bitumen? Squeezing loaded tankers through the Second Narrows channel is far from the safest route for this dangerous cargo to access international markets. However, it may merely be the easiest for the oil industry to scale up.
There has been strong public opposition to proposed pipelines to the north B.C. coast and through the U.S. Midwest. However, the pipeline right-of-way owned by Kinder Morgan from Alberta to Burnaby was approved almost 60 years ago, originally to supply modest amounts of conventional crude to refineries in Burrard Inlet.
Kinder Morgan can upgrade this existing pipeline without triggering significant regulatory approvals, even if this results in tanker transits almost on a daily basis through the largest metropolitan area in Western Canada.
There is an added potential benefit for oil companies to scale up shipments of bitumen to Asian markets. So much diluent is now needed that thousands of barrels per day are being imported into Alberta from elsewhere in the world. If foreign chemicals are used to dilute bitumen for delivery to U.S. markets it could result in millions of dollars in duties under NAFTA since it might be considered a "non NAFTA good."
The increased risk of a tanker spill in Vancouver's harbour posed by Kinder Morgan's plans to greatly increase the bitumen it pumps from Alberta has sparked concern and alarm among local politicians, but little has been said about the toxic cloud leaked bitumen likely would send drifting over one of Canada's most densely populated regions -- and the evacuation nightmare that could create.
Any debate over whether the pipeline upgrade should proceed needs to include the real possibility of the scenario outlined here, based as it is on available facts, views of experts, and the three-week evacuation prescribed when a smaller spill of diluted bitumen changed life for thousands near Kalamazoo, Michigan.