Everyday in Vancouver’s Burrard Inlet, giant cranes move thousands of containers on and off cargo ships.
The rotten-egg stench from yellow sulfur piles fills the air. And tankers full of Alberta crude wind through the narrows.
There are also harbour seals bobbing up and down checking-out boats and hunting for fish.
Hundreds of commuters fill the seabus hoping to survive another day at the office or make it home for dinner. And dog parks and bird sanctuaries sit under-used and under-appreciated.
It’s a delicate balance between industrial progress and quality of life in one of the world’s most livable cities. That balance is being threatened by a recent decision to allow oil tanker traffic in the Inlet to expand virtually unchecked.
The Greater Vancouver port cities committee decided back in July not to question the rise in tanker traffic, despite a request from the Vancouver city council to seek public input on the issue.
North Vancouver Mayor Darrel Mussatto, chair of the port cities committee, defended their decision.
“The committee has no expertise to determine the role of the port municipalities in this matter,” he said. “Many issues regarding increased tanker traffic are beyond the scope and resources of the committee.”
City Councillor Geoff Meggs, a vocal advocate for further discussion on the tanker issue, questioned whether it was in Vancouver’s interests to ship tar sands oil to markets in Asia.
“We had hoped that [the committee] would consider the bigger question,” he said. “It is too bad they made that decision, but I respect that they may not have the resources at their disposal.”
The number of crude-oil tankers traveling through Burrard Inlet each year has tripled from 34 to 104 since 2007.
Kinder Morgan, operator of the pipeline carrying oil from the tar sands to the Westridge Terminal in Burnaby, plans to more than double its capacity from 300,000 barrels per day (bpd) to 700,000 bpd.
The result is the number of oil tankers traveling through the vulnerable ecosystem of Burrard Inlet will increase to 365 by the time the expansion is complete.
All the oil tankers navigating Burrard Inlet travel through the winding second narrows. The supports for the CN railway bridge crossing the channel reduce the navigable passage to only 120 metres.
Tankers can only use the narrows at high tide and even then there is only a two-metre clearance keel to ocean floor.
President BC Chamber of Shipping, Captain Stephen Brown, said that there is almost no risk of a major spill.But others dispute that assertion.
“When you look at increased traffic like the type were talking about in second narrows and the potential dangers I have to question it,” said oceanographer Peter Baker.
“Even in ideal conditions the risks are high,” he said.
Special Council Meeting
Vancouver Mayor Gregor Robertson convened a special council meeting last summer to hear from shipping experts and environmentalists about the risks associated with the increase in oil tanker traffic in Burrard Inlet. The meeting followed increased public attention on the issue.
The council recommended the port cities committee further investigate the issue of oil tankers in two areas: opportunities for municipal and public input regarding increasing tanker traffic, and risk assessment.
Mussatto made it clear the port cities committee will not consider the bigger policy questions regarding the shipping of increasing amounts of tar sands crude out of the port of Vancouver.
“The committee will focus its efforts and attention on spill response efforts,” he said.
The port cities committee will conduct a simulation exercise in mid-December in collaboration with Port Metro Vancouver. The emergency simulation will assess response weaknesses and evaluate who should be responsible for what when there is a major spill in Burrard Inlet.
The simulation and risk mitigation are important. But the narrow focus will disappoint outspoken Vancouverites who believe that the city council and the port cities committee should be doing more to assess whether or not oil tankers in Burrard Inlet are worth the risk.