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Spill Map Program Manager Ross Dixon

Reporting by Bellamy Paithorp
Tankers waiting in the Burrard Inlet in Vancouver, B.C. | Parker Miles Blohm

Take a walk around the tony Dundarave neighborhood in north Vancouver, British Columbia, and your views of the water will inevitably include multiple oil tankers.

Vancouver is home to one of the west coast’s busiest ports. The beachside community of Dundarave looks out on the route to Burrard Inlet, where ships carry crude oil from the tar sands to Westridge Terminal through Kinder Morgan’s Trans Mountain Pipeline.

A planned expansion of that pipeline could bring as much as seven times more tanker traffic to the route, which extends out through the Salish Sea as the ships head overseas for ports in Asia. Opponents of the expansion say that means seven times more chance of a major oil spill with potentially devastating effects.

That’s why two nonprofits in Canada created a research project called the Salish Sea Spill Map.

“It’s really about trying to understand the potential spatial spread of an oil spill in the Salish Sea, in the context of the Kinder Morgan proposal,” said Ross Dixon, a program manager with the Raincoast Conservation Alliance.

“And also as a way to engage a whole different set of the public.”

Together with the Georgia Strait Alliance, they created hundreds of bright yellow “drift cards,” which are postcard-sized pieces of plywood, labeled with unique numbers and contact information for the Raincoast Alliance.

“So what we do is basically drop these drift cards, and it carries the message ‘This could be oil,’” Dixon says.

Ross Dixon holds a 'drift card' along the shores of the Burrard Inlet. | Bellamy Pailthorp

Over the course of years from 2013 through 2016, they dropped the drift cards more than 40 times, encouraging the public to report back where they landed.

“This allows us to build up a picture of the potential spatial extent of an oil spill,” says Dixon.

They drop the cards in key locations along tanker routes, from Vancouver’s English Bay out through the Salish Sea, including some of the most treacherous points along the way.

“And these are points that Kinder Morgan recognizes being higher risk of an incident based primarily on vessel traffic,” Dixon says, who himself found one of the cards on the beach at Dundarave, where he often walks his dogs. It had drifted over from nearby English Bay. But he says the drift cards often go much further.

“Just to give you some sense of how far these things go, we’ve actually found some of these cards which we dropped here in the Salish Sea in Alaska and Haida Gwaii,” Dixon says “This is thousands of kilometers north on the coast.”

And the cards were reported in the Puget Sound region more than once, with several reaching Bainbridge Island, for example, after a drop in the spring of 2014.

Dixon says the project is as much about conceptualizing where spilled oil could land as it is about engaging the public when they find the drift cards.

Drift cards were used from 2013 to 2016 and have been found as far north as Alaksa and Haida Gwaii. | Bellamy Pailthorp

“So if you can imagine, hundreds of people along the coast of Washington, through the Gulf Islands, through the San Juan Islands, through the Salish Sea, through the west coast of Vancouver Island, Haida Gwaii and even a couple parts of Alaska have actually found these cards,” Dixon said. “And it gives them a way when they pick up a card and it carries a simple message, ‘This could be oil,’ it helps them understand that there is a potential risk here.”

Dixon said Canada is way behind the United States on oil spill cleanup, despite the requirements by then-Premiere of British Columbia Christy Clark when the pipeline expansion was approved that it include world-class response. Last November, the country’s Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced C$1.5 billion in new funding to improve response measures.

“That can’t be created just by saying we’re going to do it, and it can’t be created in a couple of years,” said Dixon. “Currently our ability to respond is grossly inadequate.”

He also said response should be only one part of the equation, and there should be more emphasis on risk-reduction and prevention.

The Raincoast Conservation Fund is among several groups that are using one of the most iconic and charismatic species of the Salish Sea to make their case against the pipeline expansion.

They say the sea’s killer whale population is at risk, regardless of a potential oil spill, because of the increase in underwater noise that would come with the upsurge in tanker traffic.

The whales are listed as endangered in both Canada and the U.S. The whole of the Salish Sea is designated as their critical habitat.

Dixon said Raincoast submitted evidence to Canada’s National Energy Board that included a population viability assessment about the whales, which neither Kinder Morgan nor the regulators have contested.

“What this study showed is that the approval and construction and go-ahead for the Kinder Morgan proposal will likely mean the extinction of the Southern Resident Killer Whale population, regardless of an oil spill,” he said. “Just the increase of shipping traffic from Kinder Morgan alone will push this population of killer whales towards likely extinction.”

Meanwhile, Kinder Morgan has been forging ahead with its plans to start construction this month on the new sections of the Trans Mountain pipeline.

In September, the company simulated a 700-barrel spill caused by a truck accident and carried out a full-scale emergency response exercise at its Burnaby terminal.

This exercise is meant to fulfill one of the National Energy Board’s dozens of conditions for the expansion.

Reading List

Ross Dixon's suggested readings:

  • Carl Safina. Beyond Words: What Animals Think and Feel. London. Souvenir Press. 2016
  • Caroline Fox. At Sea With The Marine Birds Of The Raincoast. Victoria, British Columbia. Rocky Mountain Books. 2016
  • Curtis C. Ebbesmeyer, Eric Scigliano. Flotsametrics and the Floating World: how one man's obsession with runaway sneakers and rubber ducks revolutionized ocean science. New York. Harper. 2010