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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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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."