If built, the new pipeline would mean 348 more tankers plying Northwest waters each year, threatening spills throughout the region.
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If energy giant Kinder Morgan gets its way, British Columbia will soon be home to a new $7.4 billion oil pipeline carrying 590,000 barrels of Alberta oil per day to an export terminal near Vancouver, BC, on the Salish Sea. The Canadian federal government recently approved the proposal, and it is now likely the single biggest threat to the Northwest’s thin green line, the opposition movement that has staved off countless coal, oil, and fracked gas schemes around the region. If built, the new pipeline would mean 348 more tankers plying Northwest waters each year, threatening spills throughout the region.

Threats to Northwest waters

To date, most of the concern about spills from oil tankers has centered on the ecological riches of the San Juan Islands and the Strait of Juan de Fuca, the main shipping corridors for planning exports. But in truth, the pipeline expansion will also endanger the most populated parts of Washington: the core Puget Sound region stretching from the Fraser River to Commencement Bay. That’s because a portion of the exceptionally polluting tar sands oil served by the new pipeline would be delivered by sea to Tacoma.

Tar sands oil is already shipped to the City of Destiny in the South Sound. According to a groundbreaking April 2016 report by Fred Felleman with Friends of the Earth, the US Oil refinery there received a minimum of 10 million barrels of heavy Canadian crude between 2010 and 2014. (As the report notes, the shipments were handled by Sause Brothers, the same tug boat operator responsible for the 1988 Nestucca oil spill disaster in Grays Harbor, Washington.) That works out to roughly one loaded oil barge per week making the passage from Burnaby, British Columbia, through some of the most ecologically (and economically) important waters in the Northwest: Rosario Strait in the San Juan Islands, Admiralty Inlet between Whidbey Island and Port Townsend, and then past Edmonds, Seattle, Bainbridge Island, and Vashon Island, before reaching Commencement Bay.

According to 2010 documents from Canada’s National Energy Board uncovered by the Tsleil-Waututh Nation, which opposes the expansion project, Tacoma’s refinery is among five shippers that have signed ten-year “take or pay” contracts to ship a share of 54,000 barrels from the Trans Mountain Pipeline. And transcripts of hearings with Canadian federal regulators show that representatives from Tacoma’s refinery have been lobbying in support of the pipeline expansion. They argue that more tar sands flowing to the Salish Sea would benefit them directly. Rather than competing with the larger northern Sound refineries that are connected by pipeline to the Trans Mountain Pipeline system, an expansion would free up enough oil for Tacoma to obtain a larger and more predictable share that would be delivered by vessel.

Such a plan poses a huge risk because tar sands spills are notoriously difficult to clean up. Although the Washington Department of Ecology has begun studying cleanup techniques for heavy oil, there’s little question that a spill could do profound damage to the region’s environmental and economic wellbeing.

Complicating cleanup preparation is the fact that the industry keeps secret the exact composition of the product. Known as “dilbit” (or diluted bitumen) in the industry, the fuel is composed of dense and sticky bitumen blended with a stew of chemicals and light petroleum products that render it transportable and usable in a refinery. It’s highly toxic, difficult to predict and contain during a spill, and not well understood even by experts.

The Kalamazoo tar sands spill example

Consider what happened during the best known tar sands spill in the US, when a pipeline ruptured near the Kalamazoo River in Michigan. Once in the river, the constituent parts of the oil separated—the lighter “diluents” evaporated, while the heavier bitumen sank, rendering useless most conventional spill cleanup techniques, like booming and skimming. Instead, cleanup crews had to resort to a time-consuming and expensive process of “poling”—that is, sticking a long pole into the river bottom to dislodge and measure the buildup of bitumen—and dredging.

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  • In aftermath of the spill, the Kalamazoo River became a case study in the challenges of cleaning up tar sands oil. When exposed to sunlight on land or the riverbank, the bitumen formed a dense, sticky substance, likened by some local residents to chewing gum, which was very difficult to remove from rock and sediments. Michigan state officials closed fishing, swimming, and boating on the river and forced 150 families from their homes for the duration of the cleanup. Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs) found in the bitumen caused extremely foul odors and led to headaches, dizziness, nausea, and vomiting in local residents. The spill killed hundreds of birds and other animals, including many freshwater turtles, while locals took thousands more to wildlife rehabilitation centers.

    The US Environmental Protection Agency estimates that 180,000 gallons of bitumen remain in the river, of which 90 percent will likely persist even after the company responsible completes dredging about 540,000 cubic yards of contaminated sediment from the river bed. The Kalamazoo River might be seen as a warning signal for Puget Sound. And it’s a warning that may be difficult to heed owing to huge federal funding cuts for Puget Sound restoration looming in President Trump’s proposed budget.

    There have been more local warnings, too. In 2004, in the waters between Point Defiance and Vashon Island, known as Dalco Passage, a vessel leaked or spilled a relatively small amount of oil. Yet patches of oily sheen drifted as far south as the Tacoma Narrows and as far north as Eagle Harbor on Bainbridge Island. Officials closed parks on Vashon and Maury islands and suspended shellfish and seaweed harvesting as cleanup crews worked to recover an estimated 59 tons of oily debris from the shorelines and 6,842 gallons of oily water with skimming operations.

    Other Puget Sound spills are illustrative, too, from Point Wells to Fidalgo Head to Padilla Bay. Yet none of them was nearly as destructive as a large tar sands spill, such as that threatened by the Kinder Morgan expansion, could be for beaches and wildlife. It’s a risk that will weigh on Seattle, Tacoma, and many other Puget Sound communities when Kinder Morgan begins work on the new pipeline later in 2017.