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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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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.