B.C. oil pipeline opponents mark 25th anniversary of Exxon Valdez spill

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VANCOUVER – Opponents of oil tankers off the British Columbia coast marked the 25th anniversary of the Exxon Valdez oil spill on Monday by launching a renewed campaign against two proposed oil pipeline projects through the province.

Coastal First Nations, a coalition of aboriginal communities, are asking residents to support a ban on oil tankers in their traditional territories, saying Alaska still has not recovered from the effects of the 1989 tanker spill.

The Gitxaala, an aboriginal community occupying islands between Prince Rupert and Haida Gwaii, will make much the same argument to a federal government delegation next week.

“When I watched the news coverage, what did I see?” said Elmer Moody, a hereditary chief with the Gitxaala.

“I saw wildlife covered in oil. I saw oil covering the beaches. When you see that kind of destruction, you have to come to an understanding that it’s going to have an effect on people. We could no longer rely on the resources that we have for thousands of years.”

The Exxon Valdez ran aground in the early morning of March 24, 1989, dumping 257,000 barrels, or 35,000 metric tonnes, into the waters of Prince William Sound, off the Alaska coast.

The Exxon Valdez Oil Spill Trustee Council estimates 250,000 seabirds, 2,800 sea otters, 300 harbour seals, 250 bald eagles and up to 22 killer whales died, along with billions of salmon and herring eggs that were destroyed.

The company has said it spent about US$2.1 billion on the cleanup effort, which recovered only about 15 per cent of the oil.

Gary Shigenaka, a marine biologist with the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, or NOAA, said the region has not fully recovered. There remain pockets of oil along the Alaskan Peninsula today.

“I don’t think anyone really expected that after 25 years, and we don’t fully understand why,” he said in a recent NOAA broadcast.

Gravel beaches appeared to return largely to normal five years after the spill, but some animals continue to be affected 25 years later.

One group of orcas is slowly recovering; another is declining toward extinction. Only recently have sea otters and harlequin ducks been upgraded to “recovered” from the spill.

“It’s in some ways encouraging to see that the environment can rebound from something like a major oil spill, but it is still a little distressing that we can’t just say 25 years after the fact that things have recovered completely,” said Shigenaka.

The Exxon Valdez disaster has played heavily into the debate in B.C. over two major pipeline projects that would transport diluted bitumen from the Alberta oil sands to B.C. ports, for shipment overseas to the lucrative markets of Asia.

Calgary-based Enbridge’s (TSX:ENB) Northern Gateway to Kitimat and Texas-based Kinder Morgan’s proposed expansion of its existing Trans Mountain pipeline into the Vancouver area would see more than 600 oil tankers a year plying the B.C. coast.

Michael Lowry, a spokesman for the Western Canada Marine Response Corp., which is contracted to provide spill response on the Pacific Coast, said the disaster resulted in major changes to U.S. and Canadian laws, and further changes are pending.

“If these projects go ahead, we’re going to become a much larger organization,” said Lowry, whose company already has double or triple the capacity required under the law.

In a full-page ad in Monday’s Vancouver Sun, Stephen Brown, president of the Chamber of Shipping of B.C., called the Exxon disaster “a tragic day that none of us in the marine industry will ever forget.”

But he said there have been technological and regulatory advances since then, and a federal tanker safety expert panel last fall made 45 recommendations for further improvements.

“A safe shipping industry is in everyone’s best interest,” he said.

A federal review panel has recommended approval of the Northern Gateway project after finding that a large oil spill would not cause permanent damage.

A decision is expected from the federal government in June.

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