The Fraser River estuary near Ladner.

Cleanup of oil spill into Fraser River could take five years: study

Kinder Morgan projects potential impact of Trans Mountain pipeline rupture

A summer oil spill into the Fraser River in Surrey from Kinder Morgan’s Trans Mountain pipeline would mostly be swept quickly downstream and into the Strait of Georgia, with some oil reaching the Gulf Islands.

That projection, filed by the company as part of the risk assessment for its proposed $5.4-billion pipeline expansion, estimates cleanup could take up to five years.

The study assumed a full-bore pipeline breach just downstream of the Port Mann Bridge releasing 1.25 million litres (more than 10,000 barrels) of diluted bitumen.

“The process of restoration and recovery could take anywhere from 12 months to five years,” it said.

Oil carried downstream out of the Fraser delta “is likely to disperse to the north or south in the strait” and is “more likely” to reach Gulf Island shorelines on the opposite side of the Strait than to directly affect Sturgeon or Roberts banks.

Shoreline oiling is highly likely – 60 to 100 per cent probability – between the Port Mann Bridge and Annacis Island, the study says, dropping to less than 10 per cent downstream of the Massey Tunnel.

The study assumes the spilled oil will float until it strands on shorelines.

“Oil that enters salt marsh or reed bed areas may become trapped there. Although the physical effects of this oil on the vegetation may be low to medium, oil spill recovery effects may be equally damaging to the vegetation, as well as affecting habitat utilization by wildlife species.”

Ducks and geese would be at high risk of being harmed or killed, the study said, adding raptors, wading birds, shorebirds and swallows would face “medium” effects.

Mammals most at risk would be aquatic species like muskrat, beaver, otter and mink.

“It is assumed that some of these animals could be sufficiently oiled to cause death.”

A spill in winter is more likely to be contained within the river and pose less risk to wildlife, as many species, such as fish, aren’t present or else are dormant.

Kinder Morgan officials have said the new pipeline could be built with more frequent emergency shutoff valves or thicker steel near the Fraser River crossing, which would be horizontally drilled under the riverbed.

The study cautions that it didn’t look at spill probability or take into account the various Trans Mountain prevention commitments that could reduce the likelihood or the size of an oil escape.

Georgia Strait Alliance executive director Christianne Wilhelmson said the recent Mount Polley mine tailings disaster shows unexpected failures can happen.

“We have economic impacts, environmental impacts there that are going to take years to figure out and to heal,” she said. “It’s a societal question as to whether we’re willing to take the risk.”

Wilhelmson said the study demonstrates an oil spill could “devastate” habitat and wildlife in Georgia Strait as well as B.C.’s most important salmon river.

Richmond Coun. Harold Steves said Kinder Morgan should instead pipe the oil south from Abbotsford to Cherry Point, in Washington State, to avoid increased risk to the Fraser and conflicts such as its ongoing access dispute with the City of Burnaby.

“There is an oil port on our coast,” Steves said. “It happens to be in the U.S., but it’s only 90 miles away.”

He said the City of Richmond is an intervenor in the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion application because it fears an oil terminal on the Fraser in Surrey is Kinder Morgan’s backup plan, if the Massey Tunnel is replaced and the river is then dredged to accommodate bigger ships.

Kinder Morgan also modeled a pipeline rupture near Hope, projecting oil could foul shorelines and vegetation as far as 100 kilometres downstream along the Fraser.