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Skiing the pipeline

The environmental risks of the proposed Northern Gateway Pipeline project are too large to be measured. Even by skiers.

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In winter 2012/13, Canada's SKIER magazine sent three Whistler-based crews to ski three separate sections of the proposed Enbridge Northern Gateway Pipeline route and plumb the thoughts of those in the tourism industry who live and work along it. The following is instalment #2 two of the series "PiPELINERS."

Atop a glacier-etched bowl called "7th Heaven," the view beyond our ski tips is a diorama of the divine: The power of the Earth in uplifted rock, the power of water and ice in the sculpting of the land, and the power of human experience in our anticipated descent — connection and sensation we'll take to the bank. Before us an ocean of mountains ripple towards the storm-lashed Pacific, trailing a nexus of rivers limned by verdant valleys. Raw beauty, unsullied by anything.

The tenure of Northern Escape Heliskiing, in fact, is one of the jewels in a crown of recreational tourism worn by Terrace, British Columbia. Yet though we've made a half-dozen life-affirming powder runs in this basin, on each lift of the chopper I've seen not only the snowy ridges and vast forests of a northern playground, but oil pooling in the valleys, and a thick, menacing line drawn across the mountains as if with magic marker. I have heard the sirens of emergency vehicles rushing toward something they know they are powerless to either repair or reverse. I have seen fishing boats bobbing morosely on an oil-slicked sea. And I have seen headlines — a told-you-so litany of what should have been apparent from the start. A classic arc of human folly.

Today is the 24th anniversary of the Exxon Valdez disaster, and it has not gone unnoticed in our group.

Einstein defined insanity as doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results. Thus considered, no greater deterrent exists to the insanity of leviathan supertankers brimming with toxic tar-sands crude blundering through stormy, labyrinthine marine passages than the folly and fate in similar waters of a much smaller vessel.

On 24 March 1989, the Exxon Valdez infamously ran aground in Alaska's Prince William Sound, devastating one of the world's richest marine ecosystems with 11 million gallons of crude oil. The slick stretched 1,000 km into the ocean and contaminated 2,400 km of shoreline. A half million birds and billions of salmon, trout and herring died outright. A quarter century later and severe problems persist, including lasting damage to critical fish-spawning habitat. Oil that lingers deep in the matrices of intertidal zones means shellfish and herring stocks won't recover in our lifetimes, and predators like sea lions, killer whales, and seabirds reliant on them will continue to decline due to reproductive failure, genetic damage, skeletal deformity, lowered growth, liver damage, eye tumor, and brain lesions.

While the supertanker scenario is the kind of certifiably mad hubris possible only in the energy sector, it pales beside a further insanity of the proposed Enbridge Northern Gateway (ENG) project that spawned it: twin pipelines extending 1,177 km from Bruderheim, Alberta, to Kitimat, B.C., and the wild, unpredictable territory they would traverse. A pipeline that industry, the federal government — and an increasingly deceitful B.C. provincial government — seems bent on pushing through despite overwhelming opposition.

"They can't put supertankers on this coast," Steve, our van driver, said on the 20-minute ride from Terrace airport on the night we'd arrived. "Politicians don't understand that there's simply no way to make it safe. I've sailed Hecate Strait many times. Waves get so big and the strait is so shallow that the ocean bottom is exposed between them."

On our last run that day, guide Yvan Sabourin leads the group down "Family Affair," a lengthy, Euro-style descent that begins on a corniced ridge before lolling down a glacial tongue and into a winding valley. Rounding corners prescribed by towering flutes of rock you expect a town to materialize at any moment. But this isn't Europe. Only peaks, walls, waterfalls, and trees; a metric of in-charge wilderness.

Sabourin has guided for 30 years, rafting, fishing and heli-skiing the world over. His life is intimately tied to rhythms of the land, yielding the perspective of someone who knows how special B.C. is and how unspecial it could easily become. "We're being bullied by Alberta and Ottawa into thinking (ENG) is the best thing ever. But this province is dependent on tourism and we have to maintain that," he reflects. "Look what Albertans have done to their province. It's a nightmare. I pioneered guiding on the Slave River back in the '80s. Then I began hearing how First Nations there were suffering from bad air and bad water. Now the Chippewyan have lost everything and been completely disregarded."

On the ground, feelings about megaprojects are rarely lukewarm, either from those potentially in their way or those who bristle at opposition to anything concerning a profit motive and potential jobs. It's increasingly, and oddly, polar: one side requests an holistic view that includes community consultation, responsible development, and future-focused policy while the other's quest for simplification offers little beyond facile, uninformed and wrong-headed conclusions: "Heliskiing? That uses oil. Plus you drove here, so you hypocrites actually need pipelines," one might hear. "Of course," counters the other combatant in this tired pas de deux, "we all need oil the way things are currently structured, but some of us — individuals, collectives or businesses — try to offset that use, and would like to reduce our reliance in the future. That requires planning for it. Now."

The current argument seems to be one of reactionary versus measured economics, though it's spun by industry and the federal government to be precisely the opposite. Be that as it may, as you rise up through levels of organization and governance you usually encounter more nuanced views. Not so much around Northern Gateway.

"Officially we have no opinion until the Joint Review Panel (on ENG) announces its decision. But unofficially the tourism industry is freaking out. Nothing can make it safe. A hundred tugboats couldn't protect a supertanker from disaster," a local tourism director relayed to me without a moment's hesitation. "Just hearing the idea it sounds crazy; doubly so when you consider geology, geography and biology of the region. Add in the risk details, lack of economic benefit, and (Canada's) need to wind down the oil sands and build toward a post-carbon economy and it looks even more insane."

The words are indeed clear and measured, but they coalesce into a familiar and singular audio: the sound of someone who feels no one is listening. Who knows that the much thinner strain of a shortsighted minority who support radical resource extraction and pipelines is the only one that governments and Enbridge can hear. A literal and figurative voice in the wilderness.

"There's only one reason to do something so utterly, totally mad and irresponsible," he concludes, rubbing a thumb across the first two fingers of his right hand. "To make money for the corporation proposing it."

After departing Northern Escape, a threatened warm-up arrives to make the snow at nearby Shames My Mountain Co-op unskiable save on groomed runs. It's unfortunate we can't sample Shames' ample backcountry, possibly the greatest — and certainly snowiest with an average of 12-plus-metres annually — accessible from a ski area in North America. Back in the '70s, Shames recorded an astounding 24 metres of snow one year. On 11 February 1999 Terrace itself received a snowfall of 113 cm in 24 hours — just shy of the Canadian record (118 cm). The amount of precipitation and frequent temperature fluctuations are testament to the size and ferocity of Pacific winter storms that send mountainsides thundering into valleys and deliver unpredictable freshettes. Not a place for the faint of safety planning — or corner-cutting bottom-line concerns.

Beyond prodigious snows, Shames is also noteworthy for being rescued from closure by a hard-working, forward-thinking local co-op. It boasts a single, slow chair, one t-bar, and rudimentary everything, yet presents a model of sustainability, innovation and genuine community that reflects the northern ethos of pulling together. Liftie Kari Morgan, her smile a searchlight in the fog, is unperturbed by conditions, but when pressed for thoughts on Northern Gateway her silent reaction speaks volumes: radiant joy replaced by a look of abject sadness.

After a soggy few runs we retire to the bar to consider options: basically, what beer to drink and what to do before heading to Smithers to take the pulse there. The answer is a visit to Kitimat, ENG's proposed endpoint only an hour away.

With the exception of some difficult stream crossings, the pipelines will be buried a metre under the surface: a smaller-diameter pipe will transport highly toxic natural gas condensate from Kitimat east to Bruderheim; a larger pipeline will transport 525,000 barrels/day of tarry bitumen diluted with this condensate (together labelled the less noxious-sounding "dilbit") the other way. The project's massive footprint of access roads, powerlines, pump stations, and marine terminal alone will comprise measurable disruption to terrestrial ecosystems and wildlife corridors, but the most unjustifiable risks lie in crossing 1,564 watercourses in a mountainous region known for destructive flooding, landslides, avalanches and earthquakes. Almost 700 of these have been unidentified as fish-bearing, and lie in five major river drainages — North Saskatchewan, Athabaska, Peace, Fraser, and Skeena. Few B.C. schoolchildren need reminding of the importance of the salmon cycle that drives forest productivity through carbon and nitrogen cycling from aquatic (salmon) to terrestrial (everything that eats them or grows on nutrients released by their decomposition) ecosystems. A reminder, however, is apparently due those adults and politicians who've forgotten — and Albertans who have no clue — that as go the fish in B.C., so go the forests.

Given the pipeline industry's litany of failure and catastrophic spillage, mitigating the risk to watercourses that have critical economic, sustenance and ecological value is at best a Sisyphean task, and at worst irresponsible. "Everything turns on fish (in B.C)... they're at the hub of the wheel," says author Rob Brown in the just released film Casting a Voice.

Kitimat is a planned town used to large projects, but the construction currently underway there for smelter modernization and liquified natural gas plants boggle the mind; think mid-1800s gold-rush town replete with municipally sanctioned brothels (not joking). Meanwhile, Kitimat's checkered boom-and-bust history of callous environmental degradation is writ large. Once upon a time, the toxic plumes from the smokestacks of Alcan's aluminum smelter here completely denuded hillsides, and high rates of cancer plagued the community. The company knew but did nothing; ultimately it was a worker's union that forced scrubbers to be placed on the stacks.

In the old port area we pass the foundations of a long-abandoned Hudson Bay store. At a boat launch an older couple says hello to an otter that has popped out of the ocean. They lived here years ago and are on a nostalgic visit. No stranger to industry, the man had worked on a gas line for Methenex but pointedly questions the ENG plan. "There was a massive landslide on this side of Douglas Channel once," he explains, sweeping his arm ninety degrees to point across the water to tiny houses on the distant shore, "and it sent a tidal wave onto that native village... just think if there was a tanker out there at the time."

Boat traffic already slated for the channel will significantly disrupt the marine ecosystem in sheer volume alone, never mind a spill. But deeper concerns echo here as well, speaking to the effects of renegade energy extraction. Hospital Ski Hill once flourished in downtown Kitimat but was shuttered when the once reliable snowline, driven by a warming local climate, rose too high. Another coastal hill down the road in Prince Rupert, Mt. Hays, similarly blinked out. Now skiers from both Kitimat and Rupert must head inland to Shames; it's obviously not a bad thing save for the historical reasons.

Days earlier, while still at Northern Escape, a weather-day drive to Rupert offered insight into the relationship of this rugged landscape with the vaunted Skeena River. As the shimmering water broadened and braided toward the Pacific it took on an air of biological import. Seabirds — in clouds of tens of thousands — rose and fell over schooling baitfish. Bald eagles looked on from sentinel trees. Steelhead were running and Chinook salmon were beginning to come in. Soon seals and whales would follow, feeding as far up the estuary as they were able. It was like a National Geographic special about a fully functioning ecosystem.

We'd wandered the upper town, feeling the pull of its totems, street art and sunken gardens. At a small restaurant we downed fantastic chowders and the freshest fish imaginable. In the port area's quaint Cow Town, Judson "Judd" Rowse at Cowpuccino's Coffee House pulled fabulously earthy espresso below vintage ski photos and Mt. Hays memorabilia, and we learned that the 90-year-old woman who'd won the Shames Retro Day costume prize by wearing the bright pink suit and Salomon SX7 rear-entry boots (that she apparently otherwise wears every day that she skis) was actually his mother — another fully functioning ecosystem, this one of community.

It was astounding to imagine anyone would think to put any of this at even vanishingly small risk of an oil spill let alone virtual certainty.

Transporting tar-sands oil involves unique risks: 1) it may weaken pipelines at a faster rate than conventional oil due to its acidic, abrasive and viscous nature; 2) dilbit spills are especially hazardous due to its explosive properties and concentration of toxins like benzene; 3) cleaning up dilbit with conventional technologies is hampered because heavy bitumen sinks in water, and, most chillingly; 4) current pipeline safety regulations in Canada do not address shipping dilbit.

Even a small spill along ENG would be catastrophic. Toxic substances flowing downstream would be ingested by animals and sequestered in plants. As a reminder, on July 25, 2010, a ruptured Enbridge pipeline spilled 3,000,000 litres of dilbit into Michigan's Kalamazoo River. Some 60 per cent of individuals living nearby experienced respiratory, gastrointestinal, and neurological symptoms of acute exposure to benzene and other petrochemicals. Today, 60 km of water, sediment, and adjacent wetlands remain contaminated. So what are the real chances of a spill along ENG? Insurance actuaries would lose their license if they didn't calculate it at close to 100 per cent. From 1990-2005 an average of 1,000 pipeline releases occurred every year in Alberta; Enbridge averaged 67 pipeline spills a year from 2003-2007, garnering dubious distinction as one of the sector's most heavily fined companies.

Precisely where this ranks in the oh-so-crowded pantheon of oil-industry villainy is unclear, but the villains have an ally in Canada's federal government. Systematic dismantling of fundamental environmental protections by the HarperCons — neither campaigned on nor made with public or scientific consultation — now allows it to push through projects that will have imminent negative impact on fish-bearing waterways. When it comes to B.C.'s iconic salmonids, these changes threaten a sustainable, multi-billion-dollar economy of ecotourism and commercial and sport fisheries.

"It's not a matter of left versus right, or the national interest versus the local interest. It's a matter of doing something stupid which is bound to fail. It's just the wrong place to build it," says Rob Brown in Casting a Voice. "The Pacific PNG gas line runs through almost the same territory as the proposed Enbridge pipeline... (and) in the last 20 years has ruptured six or seven times. It's been taken out by landslides and avalanches and rock slides."

"We can look at... the number of slides that have occurred and, you know, if that isn't a clue about what to expect... I don't know what it takes," adds fellow author Bob Hooton in the same film. "You look at the geological stability of a place like the Clore and the Copper Valley in general, you say it's not if, it's when."

We spend another spring-like day tearing down the Banff-like fall-lines of Hudson Bay Mountain, a community-centered hill with larger aspirations that hovers over Smithers and the Bulkley Valley, a place best-known for its steelhead fishing but one which, boasting some ten sporting goods stores, is clearly a regional recreational hub.

In fact all compass points along the Northern Gateway route seem to comprise the same sustainable economic future: recreational tourism. One of those compass points is Skeena Cat-skiing, unfortunately shuttered for the season by the time of our visit. Another is Hankin-Evelyn Backcountry Recreation Area west of town. A new approach to backcountry skiing spearheaded by visionary Brian Hall, Hankin-Evelyn offers touring access to significant alpine terrain as well as below-treeline skiing on lift-free cut runs, snowshoeing and cross-country loops — a wealth of dedicated non-motorized terrain for all abilities. Supporting both the backcountry ski contingent and community at large, the cutting was done on a jobs grant for unemployed loggers and the wood sold to help finance infrastructure like avalanche education posters, warming huts and transceiver-checking access gates.

Hall worked on early avalanche control efforts at Lake Louise in the '70s and '80s. He has since done avie-control consulting, resource industry work, real estate, and started the Valhalla Pure chain of outdoor retailers. He and his wife Kim currently run the Stork Inn in Smithers. His life, perhaps more than others, broadly spans both the resource and recreation industries; his perspective, imbued with the wisdom of broad experience, echoes the intuitive sentiments of most people who reside in the north.

"No one here is against industry, pipelines or infrastructure per se," he sighs, "But irresponsible development that threatens a way of life, an ecosystem? That's different. If you want to do anything here it should be responsibly and responsibly means engaging people who are tied to the river and other recreational tourism, whether as a livelihood or sustenance. Not a lot of that has happened."

"They say there would be all this economic benefit but we know enough about resource development up here to know that's a lie." In Terrace a tourism worker adds to the discussion with this: "There would be short-term construction work but after that only a handful of jobs. None of the money would flow into the community—it would all go to the oil companies in Alberta."

Smithers' young mayor, Taylor Bachrach, who believes pipelines in themselves do represent a boom-and-bust economy in the areas they run through, shares those concerns. "Do we want something of no net benefit, and that will impact the entire province's tourism branding?"

Jezz Crosby, one of many fishing guides who speaks out in Casting a Voice is less diplomatic. "It is outstandingly arrogant of the Canadian government to even think that British Columbians want this — that it's beneficial to this area. It's arrogance beyond belief."

The locals have spoken, and whether governments listen or not, perhaps the most important voice comes from thousands of kilometres away. "Our river will never fully recover," says Susan Connolly of Kalamazoo River, Michigan, in a widely disseminated quote, "but we can educate... about the dangers of tar sands and the disastrous impact this type of spill can have so the same thing doesn't happen to you."

To read further and see more photos check out the preceding feature in SKIER issue 13.3, as well as the first instalment, "Apocalyptica," by Mike Berard in issue 13.2, and the finale "Oil and Water," by Penny Buswell in issue 13.4.