Marking 20 years
of bold journalism,
reader supported.

Expert Engineers Deem Trans Mountain Too Dangerous

One in 10 chance of Burrard Inlet disaster, riskier than Northern Gateway, says letter to NEB.

Mitchell Anderson 15 Dec

Mitchell Anderson is a contributing editor to The Tyee. Find his previous Tyee stories here.

Is it safe?

That is the critical question regarding the proposed seven-fold increase in tanker traffic through Vancouver's harbour if the National Energy Board approves Kinder Morgan's Trans Mountain pipeline project.

A group of B.C.-based engineers finds the current plans decidedly unsafe and just told the NEB so in no uncertain terms.

They echo a much earlier report commissioned by the federal government that unequivocally warned against such a plan.

Start, then, with the Concerned Professional Engineers (CPE), a group of senior local experts with decades of experience in marine transportation, naval architecture and risk mitigation. Last month they submitted a letter to the NEB regarding Kinder Morgan's proposal that states the proposed project ''presents a high risk to the environment and to structures located along these routes.'' They have not yet received a reply to their concerns, which include:

''Based on Trans Mountain's own experts' estimations…there is a 10 per cent probability that a spill of 8.25 million litres or more will occur in a 50 year operating period, even with all the proposed mitigation strategies. This is considerably greater than the mitigated spill risk of nine per cent for a 5.0 million litres spill estimated for the Northern Gateway project out of Kitimat.''

Potential public health nightmare

To put this risk in perspective, 8.25 million litres of diluted bitumen is more than twice the size of the disastrous spill in Kalamazoo, Michigan, in 2010. Costing over $1 billion, this was the one of the most expensive clean up operations in U.S. history because a large proportion of the bitumen sank in the Kalamazoo River, rendering conventional recovery equipment essentially useless.

A spill twice the size of what happened in Kalamazoo happening here in Vancouver would be a public health emergency because the volatile solvents that make up more than 30 per cent of diluted bitumen would off-gas toxic fumes into the confined airshed of the Lower Mainland -- home to more than two million people. In Kalamazoo, officials issued a voluntary evacuation order within a mile of the spill because 60 per cent of local residents were complaining of headaches, nausea, vomiting and dizziness due to high levels of carcinogenic chemicals such as benzene.

Insurance unrealistically low

The engineering experts with the CPE also feel the insurance coverage available from the shipping industry is woefully inadequate to deal with the one-in-10 chance scenario based on Kinder Morgan's own numbers.

''We believe that the funds available according to the latest estimates of the federal government are $1.3 billion, which would fall vastly short of cleaning up and compensation for 8.5 million litre (or greater) spill… In our view, Kinder Morgan should require that all vessels that come to pick up product should have unlimited liability insurance. If this were the case, the insurance company would do a realistic assessment of the risks and would increase the premiums. These premiums would then be added to the cost of the barrel of oil and we would see a more realistic cost of the price of oil.''

And who would be on the hook for any additional cleanup costs? Very likely local citizens in what aspires to be the world's greenest city.

Riskiest of 27 ports

The CPE are not the first to question the wisdom of shipping oil through Burrard Inlet. A report by the federal government in 1978 ranked the comparative safety of 27 potential ports on the B.C. coast that could be used to ship oil. The route being used by Kinder Morgan in Port Moody was ranked dead last in every category considered, including navigational risks to tanker traffic and the potential impacts of spills on the local economy, communities and ecosystems.

The authors of this study state, ''Major tanker terminals at Port Moody, Britannia Beach, Roberts Bank and Cherry Point pose the highest relative risk… Should any one of these sites be contemplated for future development or increased production capability, it must be opposed on the grounds of high relative environmental marine risk.''

Thirty-six years later, the risks of this route are arguably only worse given increased ship traffic in Vancouver harbour and local population growth. The main concern for the members of the CPE are the dangers of tanker transits that have to thread under three bridges in Burrard Inlet during a short high-slack tidal window. Their submission to the NEB states:

''We…believe that there has not been a proper analysis of the potential for a collision of a fully loaded or an empty Aframax-type tanker with either the First or the Second Narrows bridges, particularly with the present Second Narrows railway bridge... What forces would be exerted on the bridges' structures or foundations and what would be the expected damage to these bridges? Also, would the forces exerted by the vessel in striking the foundations of the bridge be sufficient to damage or rip a double-hulled vessel, resulting in a release of its oil cargo?''

Why is KM stuck on Burrard Inlet?

The CPE also ask in their letter to the NEB why Kinder Morgan is choosing to use the existing pipeline terminus in Burnaby when it would be safer from an engineering point of view to extend the pipeline to the deep-water port at Roberts Bank. This would allow for much larger ships and one-third the number of tanker transits.

Brian Gunn of the CPE, with decades of personal experience in building port facilities, speculates that Kinder Morgan may be seeking to avoid the expense of building a new marine terminal and pipeline route, which Kinder Morgan estimates would cost $1.2 billion more than their current proposal.

Local groups in the Tsawwassen area are also strongly opposed to further expansion of Roberts Bank due to impacts on critical eelgrass and migratory salmon habitat.

But there is another, perhaps more compelling, reason that Kinder Morgan is choosing the perilous route through Vancouver's inner habour. In 2005, Kinder Morgan purchased the existing pipeline to Burrard Inlet, which had been originally built in the 1950's. While they still have to undergo an environmental assessment to add an additional pipeline, the NEB process will be much less rigorous because little or no new land will be taken for the pipeline corridor.

Enbridge had to walk across hot coals compared to the relatively mild review that Kinder Morgan is undergoing. As a new project, Enbridge is facing years of legal challenges from First Nations opposed to the Northern Gateway project, which as a result may never get built. The TransMountain project is much more insulated from such legal challenges -- as long as Kinder Morgan uses the existing pipeline right of way.

They would have good reason to be concerned about First Nation opposition. Last month, 12 First Nations whose territories will be affected by the project, co-signed a letter condemning the NEB process as unconstitutional. Grand Chief Stewart Phillip was arrested on Burnaby Mountain to protest the project.

Proposing an alternate pipeline route through the densely populated Lower Mainland and the traditional territories of several First Nations opposed to the project would open a legal can of worms Kinder Morgan might prefer to stay closed.

Is it safe?

The tanker route through Burrard Inlet seems safer only for Kinder Morgan, and according to reports from the federal government and local engineering experts, much more dangerous for the rest of us.  [Tyee]

Read more: Energy, Environment

  • Share:

Get The Tyee's Daily Catch, our free daily newsletter.

Tyee Commenting Guidelines

Comments that violate guidelines risk being deleted, and violations may result in a temporary or permanent user ban. Maintain the spirit of good conversation to stay in the discussion.
*Please note The Tyee is not a forum for spreading misinformation about COVID-19, denying its existence or minimizing its risk to public health.


  • Be thoughtful about how your words may affect the communities you are addressing. Language matters
  • Challenge arguments, not commenters
  • Flag trolls and guideline violations
  • Treat all with respect and curiosity, learn from differences of opinion
  • Verify facts, debunk rumours, point out logical fallacies
  • Add context and background
  • Note typos and reporting blind spots
  • Stay on topic

Do not:

  • Use sexist, classist, racist, homophobic or transphobic language
  • Ridicule, misgender, bully, threaten, name call, troll or wish harm on others
  • Personally attack authors or contributors
  • Spread misinformation or perpetuate conspiracies
  • Libel, defame or publish falsehoods
  • Attempt to guess other commenters’ real-life identities
  • Post links without providing context

Most Popular

Most Commented

Most Emailed


The Barometer

Are You Concerned about Your Municipality’s Water Security?

Take this week's poll