FUEL SPILL NEAR THE ISKUT RIVER - NORTHWEST FUELS written by Rivers Without Borders and posted in the Terrace Daily online
Salmon and hydrocarbons don’t mix. That’s common sense, but with pipelines, mines, hydroelectric projects, new roads and increased industrial traffic proposed for northwest British Columbia, there’s a growing risk of industrial accidents and oil and gas spills in the region. A recent fuel spill near the Iskut River highlights that risk. The spill also reveals that both provincial and federal governments have gutted their environmental protection agencies, and are not adequately prepared to meet the growing threat to water quality and salmon habitat.
The spill occurred on November 16, 2011. There was no government or industry press release about the spill, and Rivers Without Borders only recently heard about it from people working in the region. Subsequent calls to government officials and other interested parties revealed more details. Here’s what happened: a loaded fuel truck and trailer bound for AltaGas’ Forrest Kerr hydroelectric project, west of Bob Quinn, lost control on a steep hill and crashed against a rock wall at kilometer 12 on the Eskay Creek road, spilling 9,300 litres of winter diesel near the Iskut River. Chemicals such as benzene, toluene, xylene, and ethylbenzene are hazardous components of diesel spills. Investigators at the scene believe the diesel drained into cracks in the rock, possibly straight into groundwater. No fuel has been recovered.
The spill is currently “under investigation”. In B.C., that’s not reassuring. Even though there are no immediate threats to human health, and hydrocarbons have not yet been detected in water, here are four things revealed by an investigation into the Forrest Kerr fuel spill, which should concern everyone in the region:
1) The B.C. Government Doesn’t Have Your Back - Due to provincial government cutbacks, there’s only one Environmental Emergency Response Officer, based in Smithers, for the entire region of northwest BC. That means that from Atlin to Haida Gwaii to Burns Lake – an enormous area – one single person is tasked with responding to spills on behalf of the province. Given the amount of proposed new industrial projects in northwest BC, unless the province hired Superman, they didn’t hire enough people to do the job.
2) The Federal Government Doesn’t Have Your Back – When it comes to spills of hazardous materials such as oil and gas, Environment Canada is responsible for handing out fines, prosecuting environmental violations, and enforcing the Canadian Environmental Protection Act. This is the same ministry that just cut 60 scientists from its staff. A Globe and Mail article pointed out that in a recent seven year stretch, across the entire country, Environment Canada nailed down only 32 convictions, less than five a year. Either Canada is a place where industrial accidents, and environmental violations, almost never happen, or the government is willfully blind and not interested in looking.
3) In Northwest B.C., The Liability Is Likely To Fall On The Little Guy - Potential liability for a spill like the Forrest Kerr fuel spill falls on the company, in this case Northwest Fuels, that had “care and control” of the fuel at the time of the accident. That’s the ‘polluter pays’ principle, and it sounds good in theory. In practice, it means a local contractor, based in Terrace, is on the hook for hiring a private consulting company to do environmental monitoring, and for potential clean up and remediation costs. At the same time, the large Calgary based corporation, AltaGas, which contracted Northwest Fuels to do the job, bears no legal responsibility for the spill. Future accidents – and there will be future accidents – will likely have similar outcomes: the financial burden of a cleanup will fall on small business owners in northwest British Columbia, not on the corporations that will construct and operate the giant mines and hydroelectric projects.
4) Wild Pacific Salmon Are In Danger – Mines, pipelines, and other industrial projects are planned for northwest BC, and the Forrest Kerr fuel spill is likely just the start of things to come. If these projects go ahead, watersheds with vast roadless areas, clean water, and pristine salmon habitat will be intercut with new roads and industrial infrastructure. For salmon, it’s the Death of a Thousand Cuts.
The degradation of salmon habitat in rivers like the Unuk, Iskut, and Stikine will be inevitable, and the threat of water contamination from a fuel spill will always be there. Norm Fallows, the BC Environmental Emergency Response Officer based in Smithers, said that in northeast BC, which has been hammered by gas drilling activity, there’s “a spill every day,” and, “anything less then 5,000 litres is considered not worth checking out”. A similar situation may be coming to the northwest corner of the province, and that would be a real shame: salmon can’t handle swallowing a fuel spill a day.